“Mystory “ is Greg Ulmer’s coinage for an emerging hybrid genre.  It dramatizes the shift that occurs when writers foreground invention (heuretics) instead of interpretation (hermeneutics).

 Heuretics –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 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. (Michael Jarrett)

“The relevant question for heuretic reading is not the one guiding criticism (ie  – according to the theories of Freud, Marx, Derrida, and others: What might be the meaning of an existing work?) but the one guiding a generative experiment: Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?”  p.5 Heuretics

Use the example of Breton in Heuretics – reading Freud (hermeneutics) to make surrealism (heuretics)

 Scholars, on the other hand, have employed vanguard art almost solely as an object of study–as something to explicate and teach.

Contemporary theorists ( in the manner of Breton) 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 (for eg. Glas, Envois..) , Barthes (eg. A lover’s Discourse) , Deleuze (eg. A thousand plateaus), Ulmer (derrida at little big horn), et al. have not only changed the look of scholarship, they have altered its goals: hermeneutics has become a means to heuretics.

So what is mystory?

Constructing a mystory, Greg Ulmer, who coined the term, suggests, helps us anticipate or actually invent a rhetoric or poetics for electronic space, for it leads us to practice the “picto-ideo-phonographic writing” fostered by electronic technology and theorised by Derrida.  He writes,

 [Mystorys] were designed to simulate the experience of invention, the crossing of discourses that has been shown to occur in the invention process. Realizing that learning is much closer to invention than to verification, I intended mystoriography primarily as a pedagogy. The modes of academic writing now taught in school tend to be positioned on the side of the already known rather than on the side of wanting to find out (of theoretical curiosity) and hence discourage learning how to learn. (Ulmer, 1994, p.xxi)

The kind of thinking required by heuretics, for writing a good mystory, is enabled by electronic literacy. “research in the form of a spectacle” is what Jean Luc Godard calls it.  And Truffaut said “Cinema…is spectacle – Melies – and research – Lumiere”.  “Just as oral cultures validate memory, linking it to wisdom, and print cultures validate rational argument , linking it to intelligence, electronic cultures are now beginning to validate composition – the ability to construct picto-ideo-phonographic texts – linking it to invention.” Jarrett

The greatest difficulty one has in attempting to write a mystory (or even understand what it is) lies in Ulmer’s refusal to provide his readers with a model from which to work. This is brought about by Ulmer’s articulation of the difference between reproduction and exploration, also undertaken by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus[1], in an attempt to think beyond method.

In arguing that ‘[r]eproducing as a method or way has to do with the power effect of subject positioning in a dominant ideology’, Ulmer is alluding to the tendency in pedagogy to reproduce in students not only knowledge but ways of approaching and disseminating that knowledge (Ulmer, 1989, p.170). The invention of hyperrhetoric, of which mystory is an example, positions the student differently in relation to language and discourse as neither a writer nor a reader but as an ‘active receiver’ capable of receiving and generating ideas according their specific relation to knowledge rather than to a general principle. Mystory, then, attempts to act as a relay rather than as a method. He states:

This alternative – the relay organized by speed, rather than the gravity of the monument – will be one of the most difficult and important issues for teletheory: how to bring the particular or singular into relation with the general or global in the manner of the relay rather than the model. Is there a contradiction, then, in trying to invent a genre for teletheory (mystory)? Perhaps not, if we keep in mind that unlike the treatise, or the conventional genres of academic scholarship, the mystory does not repeat, is not reproduced, in that no two are alike. (Ulmer, 1989, p.170)

That said, Ulmer does provide us with a range of parameters which contribute to the invention of mystory as a genre. In Chapter Three of Teletheory, under the heading of Mystoriography, Ulmer states:

As a conceptual neologism, ‘mystory’ is the title for a collection or set of elements gathered together temporarily in order to represent my comprehension of the scene of academic discourse. It is an idea of sorts, if nothing like a platonic eidos, whose name alludes to several constituent features (generated by the puncept of ‘mystory’). (Ulmer, 1989, p.83)

These elements are history, herstory, mystery, my story and envois. Each element contributes part of itself to the invention of the word mystory and each element deals in part with the concerns of mystoriography.


The first element, history, serves as a reminder of the way in which patterning as a form of referential cognition is suppressed in a traditional historiography that emphasizes and privileges the analytico-referential discourse of science. Where traditional historiography seeks to produce treatises bound to the demands of rigorous procedures of verification and justification, mystory attempts to reintroduce the particular into historiography by allowing the mystoriographer to focus on the patterns that they discern in the materials that they uncover, emphasising the individual learner’s role in the construction of knowledge. Mystory allows for the idiosyncratic generation of knowledge in ways that are meaningful for the learner. This process contributes to the formation of what might be termed ‘electronic cognition’ in that it mimics the way in which memory is organised in computing. As Ulmer argues in Heuretics:


In the hardware of computers, connectionism or parallel processing (multiple low-level memory units linked in a network) is replacing (experimentally) the more standard serial processing (a central processor addressing large storage units). In short, the change in thinking from linear indexical to network associational – a shift often used to summarize the difference between alphabetic and electronic cognitive styles (or between masculine and feminine styles, for that matter) – is happening at the level of the technology itself.”(Ulmer, 1994, p.36)

Another way of describing this kind of thinking is hyperlogic, a term used by Darren Tofts in his essay “Hyperlogic, the Avant-garde and Other Intransitive Acts” (Tofts, 1999).  Where traditional historiography is bound by the linearity of logic, mystory is made possible by the introduction of hyperlogic to historiography. Tofts argues:

One of the advantages of this kind of historiography, as Greil Marcus has demonstrated, is the formation of alternative histories, generated according to the principles of serendipity, audacious comparisons and unexpected links (Tofts, 1999, pp.23-24)

To illustrate this concept, Tofts quotes from Greil Marcus’ history of punk rock, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century:

…late in 1976 a record called “Anarchy in the U.K.” was issued in London, and this event launched a transformation of pop music all over the world. Made by a four-man rock ‘n’ roll band called the Sex Pistols, and written by singer Johnny Rotten, the song distilled, in crudely poetic form, a critique of modern society once set out by a small group of Paris-based intellectuals.  First organized in 1952 as the Lettrist International, and refounded in 1957 at a conference of European avant-garde artists as the Situationist International, the group gained its greatest notoriety during the French revolt of May 1968, when the premises of its critique were distilled into crudely poetic slogans and spray-painted across the walls of Paris, after which the critique was given up to history and the group disappeared. The group looked back to the surrealists of the 1920’s, the dadaists who made their name during and just after the First World War, the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, various mediaeval heretics, and the Knights of the Round Table. (quoted in Tofts, 1999, pp.23-24)


Tofts goes on to argue:

Alternative histories are interesting in that they provide another way of conceiving a particular terrain, in the process uncovering the assumptions that underlie ‘official’ histories. (Tofts, 1999, pp.23-24)

Mystory is capable of activating hyperlogic, situating the mystoriographer within a designated subjectivity that is context sensitive. It does not aim to produce universal truths but rather lets “specified subjectivities speak in the full context of their localities”. (Tofts, 1999, p.24) The pedagogical value of this lies in the positioning of the learner as an active participant in the production of knowledge rather than as a consumer of already decided ‘truths’.

 it doesn’t matter if it’s true, what matters is that it works


The second element of mystory, herstory, directly relates to this element by emphasising the role that mastery plays in the institutionalisation of knowledge acquisition. As Ulmer argues:

The pun on maistrie … suggests the problem, shared with feminism, of finding and alternative to mastery and assertion as they are practiced in conventional academic discourse. How to think that which, being a scholar, scholarship takes for granted? What has been given to us, in what place, compromising every question we ask? (Ulmer, 1989, p.83)

Feminist desires to reintroduce experience to the practice of knowledge acquisition by legitimating both the personal and the popular as knowledge is also an important aspect of mystoriography. In mystory, the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge are brought together allowing the learner to bring their own culturally specific experiences in terms of class, gender, nationality, popular culture and private life


The third element of mystory is that of mystery – a speculative mode that requires that the mystoriographer approach her material in a way that promotes conjecture, as a mystery, rather than calculation. Calculation involves a set of rules or the imposition of an empirical grid that delimits the possibility of chance encounters by relegating intuition to the margins of inquiry. Intuition, on the other hand, is more personal and visceral, relying as it does on feelings. As Ulmer, quoting Carlo Ginzberg, argues:

The key term to identify the kind of knowledge that defies all rules, that enables the lover to identify the beloved as unique is ‘intuition’, which has its ‘high’ forms, as in Arabic firasa (‘the capacity to leap from the known to the unknown by inference on the basis of a set of clues’), and its ‘low’ forms (rooted in the senses). (Ulmer, 1989, p.88)

To write intuitively requires the development of the ‘middle voice’, described by Roland Barthes in “To write: An intransitive verb?” and recalled by Ulmer:

In the case of the active voice, the action is accomplished outside the subject. In the case of the middle voice, on the contrary, the subject affects himself in acting; he always remains inside the action, even if an object is involved….Thus defined, the middle voice corresponds exactly to the state of the verb to write: today to write is to make oneself the center of the action of speech; it is to effect writing in being affected oneself; it is to leave the writer inside the writing, not as a psychological subject, but as the agent of the action. (Barthes, 1972, pp.164-165)

One does not remain outside, at an objective distance from the object under examination, but is always within the work when working intuitively by means of conjecture and all research relies on conjecture to some degree. Mystory encourages the mystoriographer to develop the capacity for conjecture by learning to leap from the known to the unknown by inference on the basis of clues, thereby writing themselves into the writing.  This kind of reasoning is suited to hyperlogic’s tendency towards ‘lines of flight’ rather than the linear, hierarchical model of analytical modes of reasoning.

Writing as intuition rather than as analysis is well suited to the electronic environment, as Ulmer argues in Heuretics:

The multichanneled interactivity of hypermedia provides for the first time a machine whose operations match the variable sensorial encoding that is the basis for intuition, a technology in which cross-modality may be simulated and manipulated for the writing of an insight, including the interaction of verbal and non-verbal materials and the guidance of analysis by intuition, which constitute creative or inventive thinking. (Ulmer, 1994, pp.140-141)

Intuitions may not always be, in the end, “right”. But they can provide an avenue for experimentation that allows the learner to speculate  – remembering that the root of the word speculate is spectare, to see – and to find a direction through writing rather than writing coming ‘after the fact’, so to speak. This ability to find a direction through writing is helpful when you consider that electronic rhetoric has yet to be invented, or rather, is only in the process of being invented, unlike the rhetoric of print, which is well established (though, of course, open to constant revision and experimentation).



The fourth element of mystory is My Story, an element which again invokes the register of the middle voice by requiring that the mystoriographer relate their material to themselves in the manner of a relay that may not keep its charge but must be passed on. Remember that the relay (as opposed to method) positions the mystoriographer differently in relation to language and discourse as neither a writer nor a reader but as an “active receiver” capable of receiving and generating ideas according to their specific relation to knowledge rather than to a general principle. Rather than the autonomous narrator of a series of ideas, the mystoriographer occupies a heteronomic position, engaging their own stories in the information set forth as scholarship. This, Ulmer argues, is the charge of mystory, reasoning in the mode of conduction. In contrast to the established movement of inference between things and ideas in academic discourse (abduction, deduction, induction), conduction involves a movement between things. Where abduction, deduction and induction all involve a relation between the general and the particular, conduction remains at the level of the particular. The mystoriographer is not concerned with getting to the bottom of things, in the manner of the Sherlock Holmes, but rather in seeing the possibility of connections between things without having to expand or reduce particularities to general principles.

Conduction has a double meaning alluding to the type of movement produced by a relay and the way in which we ‘conduct’ research. The allusion to movement brings to mind the conduction of electricity moving at speed from one relay point to another. Perhaps even the movement of information packets across a network. Or, to use an example Ulmer provides, the flow of energy through a circuit. But the allusion to the way in which we conduct research reminds us that this process is autographical – that we write ourselves into our own research.


This relates to the fifth element of mystory relates and the idea of envois – that is, the present of any idea as always pre-sent. Using the example of Derrida’s description of Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis, Ulmer argues that mystory belongs to a genre of writing that invents and discovers as it writes itself. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud opens with the words, ‘In psychoanalytic theory ..’. In doing so, Freud signals that psychoanalytic theory exists, even though it only makes it first public appearance with the publication of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud thus positions himself as both the subject and the producer of psychoanalytic theory. The autobiographical and anecdotal status of Freud’s text are significant here as Freud simultaneously undertakes self-analysis and invents it. Derrida’s, and latterly Ulmer’s, interest in this lies in the possibility of taking psychoanalysis ‘as a potential model for a new order of reasoning, suggesting how individual idioms may be generalized into theoretical formations’. (Ulmer, 1989, p.91) The performance and production of “psychoanalysis” occurs simultaneously, and the acknowledgement of this suggests of a way to think about the temporality of mystory. As Ulmer notes,’[t]he mystorical essay is not scholarship, not the communication of a prior sense, but the discovery of a direction by means of writing.’ (Ulmer, 1989, p.90)

[1] Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F., A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987

Leave a Reply