Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Presentation and Questions: Espen Aarseth on Cybertext and Ergodic Literature

The impact of digital technology on textuality and the question of what should be considered a literary text are at the heart of the introduction to Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The cybertext is any text-based work possessing an information feedback loop that functions, in Aarseth’s words, as “a machine for the production of variety of expression” (3). He identifies two characteristics of these texts that he returns to repeatedly in this opening chapter: the “intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange” and the reader/user as deeply integrated in the meaning-making process (1).

To read ergodic literature is to be acutely aware of the reading process, as “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (1). Cybertexts are capable of branching in different directions that will cut off other parts of the text based on choices made by the reader. “When you read from a cybertext,” he writes, “you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard” (3). Ergodic literature is not ambiguous in the manner of traditional literature: “Inaccessibility is not ambiguity—it is absence of possibility, an aporia” (3).

Notably, those characteristics—the constructive role of both the medium and the reader in the reading experience—are not limited to electronic or digital platforms, although this technology has greatly expanded the range of possible written expression. Aarseth views cybertexts not as a literary genre but rather “a broad textual media category” (5). As the examples provided by Aarseth demonstrate, a cybertext can be paper- or computer-based, codex or software: from the ancient oracular text the I Ching and Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetic “calligrammes” to experimental novels (B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea) and Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) like Adventure. The genres he covers in the book further speak to the category’s breadth: hypertext, text-based adventure games, computer-generated narrative and participatory world-simulation systems, and online social-textual MUDs.

As a result, the pleasure of the ergodic literature reader is different than the “[s]afe, but impotent” pleasure that awaits the reader of a traditional narrative (4). Rather than a voyeur, the reader who engages with the cybertext is a player, a gambler; the cybertext is a “game-world or world-game,” theirs to explore in ways that traditional narratives—despite the rhetoric of literary theorists and critics—cannot offer. Ergodic literature embodies a tension that represents “a struggle not merely for interpretative insight but also for narrative control” (4).

The resistance of traditional literary scholars to the inclusion of cybertexts in their field of study typically takes three (conflicting) forms: all literature, to some extent, is “indeterminate, nonlinear, and different for every reading”; the reader of any text can only make sense of it by making choices; and a text cannot really be nonlinear since “the reader can read it only one sequence at a time” (2). The medium’s contributions to the form and function of the text is discounted.

Aarseth traces this misconception of ergodic literature to a rhetorical model of reading adopted by many critics, theorists, and readers: the idea of a narrative text as a labyrinth, game, or imaginary world where “the reader can explore at will, get lost, discover secret paths, play around, follow the rules, and so on” (3). This misrepresentation of the relationship between the reader and the text conflates the mutable narrative paths of the cybertext with the ambiguity found in literature with otherwise linear expression. In essence, he claims, “the narrative is not perceived as a presentation of a world, but rather as that world itself” (3-4).

The image of the labyrinth is a potent one for Aarseth and helps to illustrate the conflation of these different textualities. Citing Penelope Reed Doob’s characterization of the labyrinth’s “complex artistry, inextricability, and difficult process” as a central metaphor and motif of classical and medieval culture (6), he stresses the distinction between the two varieties of labyrinth: unicursal and multicursal. The former consists of a single winding and turning path that leads to a hidden centre while the latter is more maze-like and confronts the wanderer with choices, puzzles, and dead ends.

Traditionally, representations of the labyrinth in classical and medieval art were unicursal while the literary maze was multicursal (Aarseth acknowledges this paradox). The two models co-existed until the Renaissance, functioning as a rich signifier of “complex design, artistic order and chaos (depending on point of view), inextricability or impenetrability, and the difficult progress from confusion to perception” (6). The Renaissance saw the multicursal conception of the labyrinth replace the unicursal as the dominant model; labyrinthine and linear came to be regarded as incompatible terms; and the labyrinth’s suitability as a metaphor for the reading of literature was degraded. Aarseth simply wants to reunite the two forms in order to study them using the same theoretical framework.

There are two challenges in the process of expanding traditional literary studies to make room for cybertexts and ergodic literature:

First, exemplified by the misuse of the “labyrinth” as analogous to the reading of literature, is the application of theories of literary criticism to this new field without reassessing their terms and concepts.

Secondly, the framing of any new textual media as radically different from old forms and an objective, autonomous catalyst for social change and political or intellectual liberation. In the context of literature, Aarseth identifies the belief that digital technology allows the reader to become the author: “the reader is allowed to create his or her own ‘story’ by ‘interacting’ with ‘the computer’” (14).

Ultimately, the concept of the cybertext reveals how difficult it is to separate the “text” from the “reading” of that text. It highlights the ways in which the perceived divide between the intentional object of the text and the mental event of the reading is unavoidably impacted by contextual events such as editing, translation, marketing, and criticism—this is just as true for traditional, non-ergodic texts. The cybertext represents a shift in focus from the “traditional threesome of author/sender, text/message, and reader/receiver to the cybernetic intercourse” (22) illustrated in figure 1.1.

Aarseth wants to construct “a model of textual communication that will accommodate any type of text” (18). By expanding “the scope of literary studies to include phenomena that today are perceived as outside of, or marginalized by, the field of literature” (18), he is not advocating a square peg/round hole approach of looking for “traditional literary values in texts that are neither intended nor structured as literature” (22). Rather, it is a desire to redefine what can be considered literary in the first place.

(1) The old standby: What application does the idea of cybertext and ergodic literature have to future cinema? What would (or does) ergodic cinema look like?
(2) Norman Klein writes in The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects that labyrinths encourage “a mood of passivity” in the user: “It’s the ergonomic pleasure of feeling trapped” (Klein 106). Is the reading of cybertexts (be they regarded as labyrinth, game, world) as active as Aarseth seems to believe?
(3) The pleasures of literature are not purely narrative-based. With a few exceptions, the examples given by Aarseth in this introduction are forms of fictional writing. Are the pleasures of cybertexts primarily about narrative? How does ergodic literature potentially change those other literary pleasures?
(4) Aarseth writes that the difference between traditional and ergodic literature is not “a difference between games and literature but rather between games and narratives” (5). The sense of play and gaming has been a recurring theme in the course. Is future cinema inextricably linked with gaming?

Wed, November 8 2017 » Aarseth, Future Cinema