Future Cinema

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

Presentation on Aarseth

Presentation on Espen Aarseth’s “Ergodic Literature”: an Etymological Intervention

Espen Aarseth’s “Ergodic Literature” is the introductory essay to his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997), in which he describes the distinctive forms of engagement that are required by ergodic literature, those texts whose consumption entails “nontrivial effort” (1), i.e., more than mere “eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages” (2). While his essay serves as a preliminary overview of the contents of his book, that he proposes will provide a functional and pragmatic analysis of ergodic literature, Aarseth introduces some terms that require explication before diving in further. Early on in this essay Aarseth acknowledges that his terminology is a “potential source of confusion” (2) but for him, ‘nonlinear’ was the “particularly problematic word” (ibid). I am referring instead to the neologism “cybertext” (although it has been contested that Aarseth coined it), the transposition of “ergodic” from scientific rhetoric to literary analysis, as well as his revitalization of arcane phrases like “neoteric” and “extranoematic.” As these terms are clearly essential to understanding what Aarseth means by ‘ergodic literature,’ this summary aims to function as a glossary.

Aarseth identifies both cybertext and ergodic as ‘neoteric’ terms in the first sentence of his essay. Neoteric refers to a type of ancient poetry (beginning in Greece, later spreading to Rome) that is perceived as a reaction to the structure and aesthetics of traditional Homeric epic poetry and the politics of the poet’s duty to celebrate the country’s traditional values and uphold the standards of the literary endeavor. The term neoteric is Greek for “new” or “modern” (to be more precise, in Greek it is a comparative adjective—”newer” or “rather new”). I think Aarseth purposely uses this term for a few reasons, and chiefly: to avoid the charge of fetishizing the new or isolating ‘ergodic literature’ as an emergent field of study; to illustrate his point that however novel the terms may be, this subversion of the standard assumptions of literature has a long history that dates back to ancient Greece; to accentuate the element of performativity in this form of textuality.

This is another term Aarseth appropriates from ancient Greece, but its more contemporary use lies with the phenomenologist Husserl, who distinguishes the noematic as “meanings,” or that which is thought, but contains within it the possibilities that it might be something other than what it is perceived to be. In terms of ergodic literature, we could refer to the extranoematic aspect of participation; or the extranoematic input, activity or engagement of the user. Katherine Hayles has described this characteristic of cybertext theory as ‘a theoretical space of semiotic possibilities.’

“Cybertext” has become a relatively familiar term in the twelve years since this text was originally published, with the caveat that it is generally, seemingly mistakenly, conflated with hyperfiction, hypertext, and otherwise used as a catchall to describe all forms of “computer-driven electronic textuality” (1) such as computer-based interactive fictions, games, and poetry. While it does envelop these forms, cybertext is not restricted to electronic literature, poetry, games, MUDs, etc.; it also includes printed, or paper-based texts. Aarseth makes a point addressing this as a source of potential confusion for his readers: “a number of the cybertexts we shall discuss are indeed books—printed, bound, and sold in the most traditional fashion” (9).

As Aarseth explains, cybertext is a concept he borrowed and repurposed from Norbert Weiner’s foundational work in cybernetics, which developed out of his study of guided missile technology during WWII. Weiner focused in particular on how sophisticated electronics used the feedback principle—as when a missile changes its flight in response to its current position and direction—and he noticed that this principle is also a key feature of life forms from the simplest plants to the most complex animals, which change their actions in response to their environment. Weiner developed this concept into the field of cybernetics, concerning the combination of man and electronics, which he first published in his book Cybernetics (1948) [fn 1].

Like its cyber-predecessor, according to Aarseth, cybertext “must contain some kind of information feedback loop” (19) and he notes that the concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text.

For Aarseth, ‘text’ defines a wide range of phenomena—from short poems to large databases, and as the prefix ‘cyber’ indicates: the text itself is seen as a machine “for the production of a variety of expression” (3) and a mechanical device for the production and consumption of verbal signs (21). He distinguishes two other elements that complete a cybertext: a material medium containing a collection of words and the human operator, or user of the text. According to Aarseth, another important feature that differentiates cybertext from more traditional forms is the role of the reader. The cybertext reader has agency, that is, some degree of control over the narrative, but this comes with some degree of risk of failure. He says, “The cybertext reader is a player, a gambler; the cybertext is a game-world or world-game; it is possible to explore, get lost, and discover secret paths in these texts, not metaphorically, but through the topological structures of the textual machinery” (4). Here Aarseth makes a provocative point that there is an essential difference between games and narratives, and cybertext, albeit with some overlap, belongs to the former category. This represented a significant break from previous paradigms tendencies towards medium and genre specificity.

Aarseth makes a point of stating that there is nothing new about this mode of writing; what is new is the theoretical paradigm this study pioneers: a pragmatic, ‘function-oriented perspective’ that importantly is also pluralistic so as to “avoid the traps of technological determinism and let us see the technology as an ongoing process of, rather than a cause of, human expression” (19). He says, “Cybertext… is not a ‘new,’ ‘revolutionary’ form of text with capabilities only made possible through the invention of the digital computer. Neither is it a radical break with old-fashioned textuality, although it would be easy to make it appear so. Cybertext is a perspective on all the forms of textuality, a way to expand the scope of literary studies to include phenomena that today are perceived as outside of, or marginalized by, the field of literature—or even in opposition to it, for… purely extraneous reasons” (18). He explicitly states that he uses cybertext to “describe a broad textual media category… [it] is a perspective I used to describe and explore the communicational strategies of dynamic texts” (5).

It is also important to note that Aarseth does not consider “cybertext” as a literary genre, but rather it is a process that engages readers to make ‘nontrivial’ efforts and interventions into the text. His concept of cybertext envisions the ‘user’ of the text “as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists [e.g., Stanley Fish] would claim” (1).

As Aarseth explains, the term ergodic derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” The reader must physically exert themselves in order to trace a route through the cybertext; “nontrivial effort” is required to produce a semiotic sequence (1). The user thus performs in a significant “extranoematic” sense, a term Aarseth employs to emphasize that the reader’s activity does not take place “all in his head.”

Aarseth points out something we have explored in various texts in this class: “writing has always been a spatial activity” (9) and he elaborates that “it is reasonable to assume that ergodic textuality has been practiced as long as linear writing” (ibid.). Nevertheless, Aarseth claims to have had disputes with literary theorists and critics on his concepts of nonlinearity and inaccessibility specific to cybertexts. He details this in his short exploration into the paradigm of the labyrinth, offering Borges’ forking path and Penelope Reed Doob’s unicursal and multicursal labyrinthine structures as not just metaphors for the narrative, but the literal spatial configuration of the cybertext.

Aarseth’s meditation on ‘nonlinearity’ and the ‘inaccessibility’ it engenders is functionally where a text is most ergodic, and thus is also source of the text’s ‘alterity’ and potential subversiveness. [*To be explored further where time and space permit.]

Some examples that Aarseth gives of ergodic literature include: ancient Egyptian religious wall inscriptions (c. 3200 BC); the I Ching (c. 50 BC-AD 10); Appolinaire’s concrete poetry or “calligrammes” (c. 1913-1916); Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th (1936); Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (1961); as well as the ‘textual technology’ offered by computers since the mid-twentieth century (e.g., databases, AI, text generators, hypertext, hyperfiction, etc.).

This preliminary selection gives us some compelling ideas about what kinds of textualities Aarseth will be exploring in his book, but it also contains equally compelling absences, which although he addresses by saying his book doesn’t seek to “catalogue every known instance of ergodicity” (9), will serve as my questions to the class:

1) What explains the absence of the concept “interactivity” (or at least “transactivity”) in Aarseth’s introduction—weren’t they the buzzwords of the late-90s in the context of cultural analyses of digital aesthetic forms? [The concept of ‘interaction’ is only mentioned once by Aarseth in this introduction, as part of a short critique of the ideological forces surrounding new technologies and the literatures they enable (14).] Perhaps this is limited to the introduction, but it seems like an Oulipo-style exercise in restraint to not discuss the concept of interactivity (especially considering when this text was published) in the context of developing a framework for ergodic literature. [p.s. Forget Baudrillard too?]

2) Aarseth describes a MUD (multi-user dungeon) as a text “without either beginning or end, an endless labyrinthine plateau of textual bliss for the community that builds it” (2) and I couldn’t help but think immediately of Julian Dibbell’s text “A Rape in Cyberspace” which describes quite the opposite experience, or the violent denouement of that textual jouissance a MUD offers to its participants. Aarseth explains that in its early years (late 1980s), the MUD was seen as “a new social reality” (13) in which “users came to regard themselves as participants in a community, rather than a game, with communication rather than competition as the main social activity” (ibid.). The MUD is characterized by its anonymous readership and writership, which is why the claim of participatory intimacy has always, to me, seemed to be stretched a bit thin. Nevertheless, the MUD’s ‘anonymous community’ and ‘textual intimacy’ have become the dominant paradigms for the majority of our social networking. Perhaps this is what Aarseth refers to as “the cybernetic intercourse between the various part(icipant)s in the textual machine” (22)?


Jane As Text:

More Locus Solus:


Catullus poem:

Affectual project (Pain):

J. Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace (Or TINYSOCIETY, and How to Make One)


1 http://www.livinginternet.com/i/ii_wiener.htm

Wed, November 18 2009 » Futurecinema_2009