Chapter 1: Ergodic Literature
Sample Chapter from
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature
Espen J. Aarseth
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1997.
Introduction: Ergodic Literature
The Book and the Labyrinth
A few words on the two neoteric terms, cybertext and ergodic, are in order. Cybertext is a neologism derived from Norbert Wiener's book (and discipline) called Cybernetics, and subtitled Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). Wiener laid an important foundation for the development of digital computers, but his scope is not limited to the mechanical world of transistors and, later, of microchips. As the subtitle indicates, Wiener's perspective includes both organic and inorganic systems; that is, any system that contains an information feedback loop. Likewise, the concept of cybertext does not limit itself to the study of computer-driven (or "electronic") textuality; that would be an arbitrary and unhistorical limitation, perhaps comparable to a study of literature that would only acknowledge texts in paper-printed form. While there might be sociological reasons for such a study, we would not be able to claim any understanding of how different forms of literature vary.
The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange. However, it also centers attention on the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim. The performance of their reader takes place all in his head, while the user of cybertext also performs in an extranoematic sense. During the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of "reading" do not account for. This phenomenon I call ergodic, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning "work" and "path." In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. 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.
Whenever I have had the opportunity to present the perspective of ergodic literature and cybertext to a fresh audience of literary critics and theorists, I have almost invariably been challenged on the same issues: that these texts (hypertexts,
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Chapter 1: Ergodic Literature
adventure games, etc.) aren't essentially different from other literary texts, because (1) all literature is to some extent indeterminate, nonlinear, and different for every reading, (2) the reader has to make choices in order to make sense of the text, and finally (3) a text cannot really be nonlinear because the reader can read it only one sequence at a time, anyway.
Typically, these objections came from persons who, while well versed in literary theory, had no firsthand experience of the hypertexts, adventure games, or multi-user dungeons I was talking about. At first, therefore, I thought this was simply a didactical problem: if only I could present examples of my material more clearly, everything would become indisputable. After all, can a person who has never seen a movie be expected to understand the unique characteristics of that medium? A text such as the I Ching is not meant to be read from beginning to end but entails a very different and highly specialized ritual of perusal, and the text in a multi-user dungeon is without either beginning or end, an endless labyrinthine plateau of...
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