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Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic…

Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (original 1997; edition 1997)

by Espen J. Aarseth

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Title:Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic Literature
Authors:Espen J. Aarseth
Info:The Johns Hopkins University Press (1997), Paperback
Tags:hypertext theory

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Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth (1997)



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A little bit dry, a little bit dated, and I wish it covered a broader range of material. It is, however, rich in meaningful theoretical content; recommended to anyone interested in video games from a literary/semiotic standpoint. ( )
  breadhat | Jul 23, 2013 |
Six-word review: Alternative textual structures explicated as literature.

Extended review:

"Choose Your Own Adventure" books came along when my children were young readers. They reminded me of something that I had tried (unsuccessfully) to create on paper when I was about their age. The idea of virtual exploits with variable outcomes and only imaginary risks appeals to the armchair adventurer in many of us. Adult video gamers bear witness to the fact that this is not an appetite that ends with childhood.

Had I done so, I would have become an author of ergodic literature.

In choosing my own reading adventure myself a few months ago, I passed--without realizing its significance--a critical juncture when I chose the left fork in the road and purchased a copy of the 709-page House of Leaves (Danielewski). That work led me to go back for Pale Fire (Nabokov), which I ought to have read about 40 years previously, and to look up some amount of analytic and critical commentary.

I went on to read The Tragedy of Arthur (Phillips) and to reflect afresh on The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (Hoffman) and Possession (Byatt), which are not ergodic literature as I understand it but which nevertheless partake of some of its unusual characteristics.

In this reading game, your score doesn't suffer if you take the steps out of order. But your experience of point C can be really different, depending upon whether it's preceded by point B or point D.

And that, in fact, is part of the point, according to author Aarseth.

To understand more about what I'd been reading and why (like the Navidson house itself) these works seemed to me much larger than their actual and metaphorical dimensions, I took a deep breath and plunged into Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

Disclaimer: I'm not an academic. I earned my degree in English at a time when none of us had ever heard of word processing, and Internet Protocol (IP) hadn't been invented yet. Despite a 30-year career in publications, most of it in high tech in Silicon Valley, I'm more than a little out of my depth in reading this book. I make no claims for my understanding of its more esoteric content, much less for owning a suitable context or framework in which to place it. Any failure of comprehension and interpretation is my own and should not be laid at the author's door.

Several sources citing Aarseth's work on ergodic literature quote him as follows (page 1):

"In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text."

Some extend the excerpt to quote the next sentence (page 1):

"If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages."

This, I believe, is intended as description but not as definition. The characterization of a serious reader's engagement with a challenging but traditionally structured text as trivial tends to provoke a distracting surge of indignation that leads away from an understanding of the concept. Most literature that is worth reading involves a nontrivial effort on the part of the reader; but Aarseth does not mean to disparage conventional literature or the work of reading it. Rather, he is talking about a difference in the essential nature of the work.

It took me most of the book to arrive at a definition that I feel is warranted by the author's treatment of his subject, this formulation being my own and not the author's. Appropriately enough, it's phrased as a question and not a statement. At the bottom of page 114 I wrote in pencil:

Would it be correct to say that ergodic literature is literature that must in some sense be navigated by the reader, who must figure out how to do that as part of the reading process?

In the concluding chapter, on page 179 of 183, we come at last to this:

"The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes {sic} between successful and unsuccessful users." In other words, there are rules for extracting something like meaning (or sense, or experience, or something else for which the signs and forms stand, as we extract meat from a nut) from the composition (or work, or program), and part of the reader's (user's) task is to figure out what those rules are.

I think it's worth dwelling on this matter of definition at some length because comprehension of the concept itself might be the most useful result of my reading of this book. (If something is interesting, it's automatically useful, although not everything that's useful is necessarily interesting.)

Other ideas prosecuted in the course of this relatively short but influential work are the meaning and, where applicable, interrelationship of text, of hypertext, of authorship, of narrative, of medium, and of reading. History, exploration, and analysis of aspects of postmodernist and posstructuralist literature, text-based adventure games, and multiuser dungeons (MUDs) figure prominently in the process. Allowing for the fact that this book was published sixteen years ago and that much of what we find commonplace now in experiencing computer-based media was either undeveloped or in its infancy, the author's detailed analyses and typologies furnish a revealing perspective, exactly as the title promises, on literature that bends or breaks the old rules and even on literature that doesn't.

If you enjoy the entertainment of watching a bravura display of mental athletics and you can muster some hard-headed persistence in following, dictionary in hand, several lines of thought pertaining to verbal works that you might not have known how to think of as literature, you may take away from this possibly novel experience something more than you anticipated going in. ( )
4 vote Meredy | Jul 1, 2013 |
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Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or his society. The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular effect of one of these permutations on a man endowed with a consciousness and an unconscious, that is, an empirical and historical man. It will be the shock that occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and his society. -Italo Calvino
This work was made possible by a three-year Ph.D. scholarship from the Norwegian Research Council. I wish to thank the Faculty of Arts, University of Bergen, for their generosity in providing me with basic equipment crucial to my project, when they were under no obligation to do so.

A large number of people in various countries have contributed invaluable help and inspiration during my years of research. By naming none, I hope to include all. I am indebted to my supervisors, Atle Kittang and Richard Holton Pierce, for their critical and inspiring support. I am also very grateful to my colleagues and friends at the Humanities Computing Section, in particular Roald Skarsten.
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A few words on the two neoteric terms, cybertext and ergodic, are in order.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801855799, Paperback)

Can computer games be great literature? Do the rapidly evolving and culturally expanding genres of digital literature mean that the narrative mode of discourse—novels, films, television series—is losing its dominant position in our culture? Is it necessary to define a new aesthetics of cyborg textuality?

In Cybertext, Espen Aarseth explores the aesthetics and textual dynamics of digital literature and its diverse genres, including hypertext fiction, computer games, computer-generated poetry and prose, and collaborative Internet texts such as MUDs. Instead of insisting on the uniqueness and newness of electronic writing and interactive fiction, however, Aarseth situates these literary forms within the tradition of "ergodic" literature—a term borrowed from physics to describe open, dynamic texts such as the I Ching or Apollinaire's calligrams, with which the reader must perform specific actions to generate a literary sequence.

Constructing a theoretical model that describes how new electronic forms build on this tradition, Aarseth bridges the widely assumed divide between paper texts and electronic texts. He then uses the perspective of ergodic aesthetics to reexamine literary theories of narrative, semiotics, and rhetoric and to explore the implications of applying these theories to materials for which they were not intended.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:20 -0400)

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