Ergo Pages, Ergo Perspective; Ergodic Literature

In “Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature”, Espen J. Aarseth defines and defends “ergodic literature”, named after the Greek words ergon and hodos (meaning “work and “path”) to be highly performative compared to typical readings of texts. He is careful not to compare it too closely with literature because he is not trying to prove that it fits the same constraints, but instead to investigate it for its own functional features. Though he admits this way of reading still must have some linear characteristics– “the act of reading must take place sequentially, word for word”– ergodic literature and cybertexts create active readers where as linear narratives do not (Aarseth 2). The two types of readers Aarseth describes are divided by their ways of experiencing the text. Readers of narratives are “voyeuristic”, “powerless”, merely looking at a book” (Aarseth 3). However, cybertext readers experience the “investment of personal improvization”, “a struggle not merely for interpretive insight but also for narrative control” and traverse the paths presented by texts with intent (Aarseth 3).

Typically, I expect research material such as this to first explain the topic and terms and then to hit me with the theory or counterarguments. However, it is not until page twelve that Aarseth starts a section entitled “What is Cybertext?”, in which he goes on to (finally) define text.  Not to mention, there are multiple times in the introduction where he notes which chapters will continue a discussion of which topics. Though that in itself may be “normal” protocol for an introduction, when paired with the links beside the text (which are obviously only functional when read digitally), it seems that Aarseth created this article with a bit of ergodic encoding. Afterall, as a reader, I could choose which, or how many of those links I would like to explore, if I would like to skip ahead to chapter 4 and if I would like to crush some of the linear functions at work with my “narrative control”. Ergodic texts are characterized by an “unlimited possibility for variation” and also a reminder of paths not taken– or links unexplored (Aarseth 9).

Here are some examples of ergodic texts (texts meaning phenomena, not just signifiers) :

  • Calligrammes: Words that comprise not only a poem, but an image, disassembled on the page so as to induce no preferred sequence of reading.
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “It can be read straight through…or by jumping between the comments and the poem” (Aarseth 6).
  • Ted Nelson’s Hypertext: Discussed previously in class, hypertext was further defined by Aarseth as “a strategy for organizing textual fragments in an intuitive and informal way, with ‘links’ between related sections of a text or between related parts of different texts in the same retrieval system” (Aarseth 9).

Aarseth uses the labyrinth as a visual and metaphorical symbol of the perceptive processes taking place with ergodic literature. However, the idea of the labyrinth has changed over time, making the definition a bit murky. During the Renaissance, the labyrinth morphed into the pessimistic place our conscious links with the image today: “the old metaphor of the text as labyrinth…[which] could signify both a difficult, winding, but potentially rewarding linear process and a spatial, artistically complex and confusing artifact, was restricted to the latter sense” (Aarseth 5). Instead, Aarseth prefers the duality that existed in the ideas of Penelope Reed Doob, where the labyrinth could represent both creative order and disorder and could be used to understand the twists and turns of both multicursal and unicursal texts.

It is abundantly important to Aarseth that the understanding of cybertext and digital ergodic literature not be forced into the preexisting categorization of literary theory. He is hoping that digital media can be understood for its own functioning features, but he feels that the whole digital world is misinterpreted and mislabeled, in particular by literary critics.”The idea that the computer is in itself capable of producing social and historical change is a strangely ahistorical and anthropomorphic misconception, yet it is as popular within literary- cultural studies as it is in the science fiction texts they sometimes study” (Aarseth 10). It is this technological determinism, positing “new text media as radically different from old, with attributes solely determined by the technology of the media”, that Aarseth finds inherently problematic.

As Aarseth explains, cybertext includes many textual media. It is not bound by any genre, but most importantly it isn’t a “revolutionary form of text”, a spawn of progress and technological advancement. Instead, Aarseth defines cybertext as a “perspective on all forms of textuality” (Aarseth 12). As a result of digital systems, we experienced a schism in “the text itself” where it became known as separate entities: the  interface and the medium (Aarseth 9). Aarseth is interested in this kind of philosophical breakdown, this exposing of parts, but in terms of the psychological processes taking place in what is being communication. “The emerging new media technologies are not important in themselves, nor as alternatives to older media, but should be studied for what they can tell us about the principles and evolution of human communication” (Aarseth 12). Thus, while his opponents may be trying to define the communicative functions of new media solely in terms of their technological traits, Aarseth is more focused on the new ways that information can be manipulated, the possibilities that digital ergodic literature presents and– of course– an understanding of ergodic literature through a lens all it’s own (not that of literary theory).

The transference of information from the collection of words in a text (machine),  to the operator is “fluid and transgressive, and each part can be defined only in terms of the other two” (Aarseth 14). He notes not only the effect organization of information can have on the reader’s understanding, but the fact that “a text can never be reduced to a stand alone sequence of words. There will always be context” (Aarseth 14). It is this inescapable transference of subjectivity that reminded me of Immanuel Kant’s “Noumenon”. Yes, Mr. Aaarseth, I’m going to quote a classic, but don’t worry, I’ve read Kant before (and not just as a result of a search engine).  To understand the noumenon is to understand the thing in itself, completely and entirely objectively. No matter how much “narrative control” we may have in cybertext, to what extent can we harness it? We are still working within the framework of an author, or of a machine, or even the confines of our own subjectivity. I feel there exists great tension in this power-play.

This video I found is an interesting way to explain that very idea. Though this video makes its point solely through images, I feel like it enhances his point in a visual way that is needed with such dense terminology. I don’t want this to appear solipsistic or reductionist, but I will say this: opening your mind and taking in these images will most likely make you aware of the power you have to, as Aarseth writes, “complete a text” (Aarseth 14).

3 responses to “Ergo Pages, Ergo Perspective; Ergodic Literature

  1. I find this idea of noumenon very interesting in the context of this discussion. Unfortunately, most of my exposure to Kant is through a search engine so I’m afraid I need a little more explanation about this theory and how it relates to Aarseth’s argument.

    It’s interesting that the first examples of cybertext were in analog books like “one Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” because it has its own set of rules for reading. The transition from reader to user is an interesting one. I think many authors would take issue with the thought of large parts of of their work being missed by the reader because of the choices they made. Authors write things to be read and I think one of the reasons it took so long to reach this point where more texts have become interactive is because of the issues surrounding interactive text. It seems more like a game than literature.

  2. The biggest struggle I had with Aarseth’s article is the idea he proposed that cybertext text readers are so vastly different than readers of normal literature. Ergodic literature and cybertexts as liberating and giving power to the reader is all an illusion to me. Web design, content and beyond, I think cripples the reader of these texts to become just as powerless as readers of static literature. Authors of cybertext choose what hyperlinks to include and all of the “choices” that the reader are making are pre-determined by the author and only gives the reader the illusion of choice and power. I would argue that authors of these texts only use these tools to focus on their main point or idea by choosing what they link to based on what would be supportive/helpful to proving whatever point they are trying to make, ultimately hurtful to any reader who wanted to have an active discourse with a text.

  3. Hello Nick,

    I wanted to respond to your comment. I had similar difficulty with this. As a filmmaker, I tend to note the way that things- images, text etc- are structured, or offered to the audience. They are certainly framed intentionally. However, while the links may be the same, I think that the journey, or the “narrative we write” will actually end up being vastly different from each otehr. For instance, I look to the right of this textbox and notice a bunch of links that I can choose from in the “On the Media” section. (These I think are computer generated, so this may not be the most sufficient example). Let’s say I click on “Health Craze”, then click on something about a certain doctor, and so on. Or, to be more effective, let’s say that I first go to all the articles tagged “twitter” from our blog. Then I see one blog entry I enjoy and click on that author to read more of their work. Then I see a comment I enjoy and click on yet another author. I think that in this way, we can affect our “readings” of things. However, I do not want to act as if this concept is so black and white- its not. I do agree in a framing of links/ ideas that are offered. I think then it may just be our responsibility to break free. But, in the case of calligrammes, you and I could encounter the same word poem and leave with very different interpretations. This is because, as Arseth notes, words are always coded with context. I feel like this concept of ergodic literature is realized most clearly in print form. On a side note, I would also add that Arseth’s piece sounded rather disgruntled and as a result seemed to smooth over and generalize way too much to me. I understood his frustration with literary critics, but I his arguments left me writing “too quick” or “all?” in the margins rather often. Maybe that’s just in my opinion though…

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