Aarseth, Cybertext

Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore,
Md.: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Aarseth’s discussion of cybertexts or, that is, ergodic literature
(ergodic from Gr., ergon – work and hodos – path),
is carried on the shoulders of an ambitious and insightful set of terms and a
seven-mode textonomy for describing ergodic literature across the typical
(and unsuitable) poles of digital and print for typifying texts.
, then, works with examples from (literary) hypertext, video games,
text adventure games, and MUDs in an effort to compel us toward a "more
viable terminology
" (74), while rendering productively murky many of the
thought-to-be-clean distinctions between texts experienced in the phosphor of
the screen and those experienced on paper. The digital-paper dichotomy,
he says, suffers from limited analytical power (54). Aarseth’s project is
striking for his discussion of kinds of paths, his differentiation in
terms among linear, multilinear, and nonlinear (3;
multilinear dissolves the linear/nonlinear commonplace (44)); unicursoral
and multicursoral (5-6); and interactivity (48). The
linearity/nonlinearity dichotomy and discussions dependant on engulfing notions
of interactivity (48) are unsuitable, he argues, to the more viable terminology
he seeks. He also builds on Barthes’ discussion in The Pleasure of the Text
of tmesis or skipping in reading. Cybertext,
ultimately, is more a perspective than a category (24); writing as a
cyborg activity
increasingly reminds of the inadequacies of the
Shannon-Weaver communication model for describing the complex, emerging dynamics
involved with cybertexts.


Aarseth’s approach emphasizes the experience of the texts (not
necessarily a hermeneutics); he views text as phenomena rather than as a
string of signifiers (20), and he reads cybertexts across their aesthetics,
their constructions, and their uses. The cybertextual perspective
is especially useful because they merge paper and digital texts into a cohesive
analytic-descriptive framework.

Aarseth explains his tentative "textonomy" in terms of scriptons,
, and a traversal function. Scriptons are strings of
signs (information) "as they appear to readers"; textons are strings of signs
"as they exist in the text"; and the traversal function is "the mechanism by
which scriptons are revealed or generated from textons and presented to the user
of the text" (62). Built on these neologisms, Aarseth’s seven-term typology
includes the following modes of traversal (together, their variables make
possible 576 unique combinations or "media positions" (64):

  1. Dynamics: the fixity, variability, or unavailability
    of scriptons;
  2. Determinability: A determinate text has the same scriptons each
    time; the scriptons adjacent to any other scripton vary in an indeterminate
  3. Transiency: The passage of time triggers the appearance of scriptons in a
    transient text (alt. intransient);
  4. Perspective: If the user has a character in the world, the perspective is
    personal (alt. impersonal);
  5. Access: If all scriptons are accessible at all times, as in a codex, the
    access is random (alt. controlled);
  6. Linking: Explicit, conditional, none;
  7. User Functions: explorative (forking), configurative (scriptons
    are created or chosen), interpretive (hermeneutic), textonic
    (able to write or program–extend or change text) (63-64).

Nonlinear text: "An object of verbal communication that is not simply
one fixed sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the
shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text" (41).
Text: "Any object with the primary function to relay verbal information"

Key terms: feedback loop (1), mechanical organization (1), reading (1-2),
linearity (3), cybertext (5, 17), forking paths (5), unicursal and bivia (5-6),
linear, maze, net (6), footnote (7), database (10), hypertext (12, 77),
textonomy (15), textology (15), theoretical restraint (18), technological
determinism (19), hermeneutics (20), computer semiotics (26), artificial life
(AL) (29), emergence (30), permanence/transience (30), dual materiality
(40), nonlinear text (41), nonlinear/multilinear (43), linear paradigm (46), RB
tmesis and skipping (47), interactivity (48), cyborg aesthetics (51),
Analytica (60), text (62), scriptons and textons (62), reader (74), network and
link (83), anamorphosis (180), metamorphosis (178).

"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" (1).

"In a cybertext, however, the distinction [between play and performance]
is crucial–and rather different; when you read from a cybertext, you are
constantly reminded
of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices
not heard" (3).

"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).

"Cybertext is a perspective on all 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 (as I make clear later) purely extraneous reasons"

"The various effects produced by cybertextual machines are not easily
described by these textological epistemes [philological,
phenomenological, structural, semiotic, and poststructural], if they can be
described at all. I might achieve something by trying each one, but since all of
them so obviously conceive the material, historical, and textual artifact as a
syntagmatic chain of signifiers and little else, that approach would most
likely prove fruitless and desultory, and it would almost certainly not
illuminate the idiomatic aspects of ergodic texts" (24).

"The crucial issue here [in Aarseth’s discussion of computer semiotics] is
how to view systems that feature what is known as emergent behavior,
systems that are complex structures evolving unpredictably from an initial set
of simple elements" (29).

"When the relationship between surface sign and user is all that
matters, the unique dual materiality of the cybernetic sign process is
. Without an understanding of this duality, however,
analyses of communication phenomena involving cybernetic sign production become
superficial and incomplete" (40).

"To construct a fundamental dichotomy between linear and
types of media is therefore dangerous; it produces blind
spots even as it creates new insights" (47).

"The word interactive operates textually rather than analytically, as
it connotes various vague ideas of computer screens, user freedom,
and personalized media, while denoting nothing" (48).

On cyborg: "[Manfred] Clynes constructed the term from the words
cybernetic organism
and used it to describe the new symbiotic
entity that results from the alliance between humans and technology in a
closed, artificial environment such as a space capsule" (53).

"When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader,
where, and what, am I?" (162). ^In "The Death (and Politics) of the

"Even if we can no longer use the word author in a meaningful
way (after all, today’s complex media productions are seldom, if ever, run by a
single ‘man behind the curtain’), it would be irresponsible to assume
that this position has simply gone away, leaving a vacuum to be filled by
the audience" (165).

"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 between successful and unsuccessful users" (179).

"The idea of the new is always ambiguous, and if the use of these
neologisms seems contradictory and self-defeating in a study that seeks to
demonstrate the ideological forces behind similar neologisms (interactive
fiction, hypertext, etc.), my only defense is that I try to make my concepts
less dichotomic
and more analytic than their alternatives" (182).

Related sources:
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Weiner, Norbert. Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the
Animal and the Machine
. New York: Technology Press, 1948.