August 12, 2005
Given the enormous influence of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature on studies of elit, it’s no surprise that people new to the field have asked me, from time to time, to clarify for them what Aarseth’s neologisms “ergodic” and “cybertext” mean. I’ve been happily supplying people with my understandings of what the terms mean, and have only in the last week or so begun to realize that I was probably wrong in my explanation — every time.
I’ve been telling people some variation of this: ergodic literature requires the reader to undertake “non-trivial” effort in order to traverse the text, and cybertext is the kind of text one reads ergodically. Two sides of the same coin. And I’d point them to this paragraph (p. 1-2):
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 the 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 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.
So far so good. Reading a little further in chapter 1, those I referred to the paragraph above might have found a section (pages 9-13) giving some examples of ergodic literature. These include: wall inscriptions of the temples in ancient Egypt that are connected two-dimensionally (on one wall) or three dimensionally (from wall to wall or room to room); the I Ching; Apollinaire’s “calligrammes” in which the words of the poem “are spread out in several directions to form a picture on the page, with no clear sequence in which to be read”; Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th, in which members of the audience form a jury that chooses one of two endings; Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, Roman, which is a novel with shuffleable pages; Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Million Poems; B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates; Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea; Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza; Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure; James Meehan’s Tale-spin; William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter’s Racter; Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: A Story; Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle’s Multi-User Dungeon (aka MUD1); and James Aspnes’s TinyMUD.
Of this list, the only immediately problematic entry is Meehan’s Tale-spin — which is a program for generating simple, linear stories. It’s hard to understand how traversing the output from Tale-spin requires nontrivial effort. All it requires is eye movement, which is explicitly listed (in the paragraph quoted above) as part of what one does for nonergodic literature. Speaking of which, eye movement appears to be the only extranoematic responsibility for the reader of Apollinaire’s “calligrammes” — what makes them ergodic? Rereading this recently, I started to feel confusion rising. But I figured it was only a list, and I thought I understood the basic idea of ergodic literature and cybertext, so I let it pass.
Or, I let it pass until page 75, when I came upon this passage:
I suggest the term cybertext for texts that involve calculation in their production of scriptons. This criterion corresponds nicely to all the texts in the west half of figures 3.2, 3.3, and 3.4, while in the east it applies to Afternoon, which is not really a pure hypertext, since some of its links are conditional. The concept of cybertext is therefore highly relevant to the interpretation of our analysis, since it almost perfectly follows the division established by the main axis.
At this point I was confused more than I could dismiss, and not because of the odd definition of hypertext that Aarseth was using. Let me explain… This is the list of works in the west half of 3.2, plus Afternoon: Robin Waterfield and Wilfred Davies’s The Money Spider, a path-choosing game book; Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure; Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson’s Falcon 5: The Dying Sun, a game book which “adds indeterminacy by having the player roll dice to decide between paths”; Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza; Trevor Hall’s adventure game Twin Kingdom Valley; the I Ching; William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter’s Racter; Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle’s Multi-User Dungeon; James Aspnes’s TinyMUD; John Cayley’s Book Unbound; James Meehan’s Tale-spin; Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: A Story. This is the list of works in the east half of 3.2, minus Afternoon: Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden; Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch; Allen S. Firstenberg’s Unending Adventure, a web-based forking text that accepted reader contributions; William Gibson’s encrypted poem Agrippa; Apollinaire’s Calligrammes; Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Million Poems; Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; Randi Strand’s artist’s book Norisbo; Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, Roman; and Jenny Holzer’s LED art installation I am Awake in the Place Where Women Die.
The two lists above contain 11 works that are also among the examples listed for ergodic literature in chapter 1: the I Ching; Apollinaire’s Calligrammes; Saporta’s Composition No. 1, Roman; Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Million Poems; Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza; Crowther and Woods’s Adventure; Meehan’s Tale-spin; Chamberlain and Etter’s Racter; Joyce’s Afternoon: A Story; Trubshaw and Bartle’s Multi-User Dungeon; and Aspnes’s TinyMUD. Of this 11, eight appear on the “west half plus Afternoon” list, but three (Calligrammes, One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, and Composition No. 1, Roman) appear on the “east half minus Afternoon” list. This means that I was utterly incorrect when telling people that ergodic literature and cybertext were two sides of the same coin. And as I thought about it I realized something further — while I’d been telling people that “cybertext” was a category that included hypertext, Stuart Moulthrop’s well-known hypertext novel Victory Garden is explicitly excluded by Aarseth (appearing, as it does, on the east half of 3.2). Yet, at the same time, The Money Spider appears in the west (cybertext) list, though the amount of calculation involved in its path-choosing seems less than Victory Garden‘s.
In fact, in looking for the term of Aarseth’s meant to encompass all of hypertext, I was probably looking for “ergodic” rather than “cybertext.” My current guess is that ergodic literature includes literature involving any choice — including the choice of what link to click and the choice of which way to move one’s eye across a page or temple wall. On the other hand, cybertext literature is a rather different category, only including works that involve calculation in their production of scriptons (the texts read by the reader). But how this calculation is defined, precisely, is hard for me to understand — given that The Money Spider has it but Victory Garden and One Hundred Thousand Million Poems lack it. Perhaps, like the difference between Afternoon and Victory Garden, it has to do with conditional connections. This speculation is supported by the following passage I found on Demian’s Gamebook Web Page about the game book series of which The Money Spider is a part:
These mystery gamebooks cast the reader as a detective known as T.S. (short for “troubleshooter”). No dice are used during play, but each book includes a “web” on which numbers are written when certain clues turn up. If the right clues are found, things progress to a successful conclusion; otherwise, the player is taken off the case and the criminal escapes.
But, to me, this feels like a pretty provisional understanding.
Anyway, I write all this for two reasons:
- First, to point out that (in case there are others confused as I was, perhaps because I contributed to their confusion) “ergodic” and “cybertext” are not two sides of the same coin — but, instead, rather different, overlapping categories — and that hypertext (even by Aarseth’s definition) is not a subset of cybertext. (Had most folks already caught on to all that already?)
- Second, because I’m genuinely confused about what kind of calculation is required for something to be a cybertext. If anyone can help clarify this for me I’d much appreciate it. I just took a quick look Nick and Markku Eskelinen’s quite useful pieces, because I hadn’t read them in a while, but didn’t find the clarification I sought.
Oddly enough, all that said, I don’t have the same confusion about textons and scriptons that Matt Kirschenbaum discusses. To me they’re pretty straightforward terms, referring to the elements of a work of literature (and not to other applications involved, the operating system, or other technical layers that aren’t part of the work). More relevant to Kirschenbaum’s questions is probably Aarseth’s first paragraph on page 176, which discusses the question of what we view as the “text” when looking at the tower of user/developer hierarchies that underlie any modern software use.
Finally, I’d like to return to my confusion about the presence of Tale-spin among the examples of ergodic literature. The only explanation I’ve been able to find for it is a rather different definition of “ergodic” found on page 94: “The adjective I propose for this function is ergodic, which implies a situation in which a chain of events (a path, a sequence of actions, etc.) has been produced by the nontrivial efforts of one or more individuals or mechanisms.” This is really quite different from saying, as chapter 1 does, “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” If we can include nontrivial effort by mechanisms, then Tale-spin definitely fits. I’m tempted to start using this sentence from page 94 as my explanation of “ergodic” — but then I’d probably be running against the grain of almost everything in our field that uses the term, and I haven’t found further support in the text. In fact, I’d be running against the other major passage that defines the term, on page 179:
So what exactly is the difference between the ergodic and the nonergodic work of art? If we are to define this difference as a dichotomy (and such a definition may well end up serving the ideology it is trying to unmask), it would have to be located within the work rather than within the user. 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. The usefulness of this definition is limited not so much by the concept of ergodics as by the concept of the work of art, which, in the case of ergodic phenomena such as MUDs, becomes notoriously unclear.
Obviously, this isn’t a very useful way to think about reading Tale-spin‘s output. So I’m left — despite having finally clarified the fact that ergodic and cybertext refer to rather different categories — without a clear feeling about the meaning of either term. Can anyone out there help me? Are there, perhaps, other pieces of Aarseth’s that present the terms in a way that could help clear up the confusion that my re-reading of Cybertext has induced?