Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter 1997/1998 (#8)

Cybertext by Espen J. Aarseth

Cybertext

Perspectives On Ergodic Literature

Espen J. Aarseth

Johns Hopkins University Press ($14.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

In this book, Espen J. Aarseth has created a key text for future critical and creative work in the field of electronic writing. It's a particularly brave undertaking, since there are so many different kinds of electronic texts, most continually mutating and evolving. In succeeding, Aarseth has created a particularly valuable guide. What he does right is simple: he's general when he should be general and specific when he should be specific. Cybertext's strength is in the balance it strikes between those two perspectives; its future utility is in the bridge it builds between them.

From the first line, Aarseth marks out the territory he'll examine, defining the title neologism. In the term cybertext, Aarseth is not using cyber in the popular connotation "computer-" or "machine-". Instead, he's returning to the sense of information theorist Norbert Wiener's coinage cybernetics, where cyber means "control"--in particular, control through the give and take of feedback loops. Aarseth, then, shifts emphasis away from the text's inner software mechanism and onto the complete system of text plus user. Nothing inherently electronic or necessarily high-tech in this idea; Aarseth sees the I Ching, Apollinaire's Calligrammes, Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes, and various other works on paper as cybertexts just as much as anything currently being done on computers.

Aarseth examines various terms and approaches to electronic literature, carefully testing what really is and isn't useful. Out go familiar (and overhyped) terms like "nonlinear" and "interactive;" in comes the suggestive concept of "cyborg aesthetics." He also finds some value in certain semiotic approaches to electronic texts and constructs his own descriptive typology of cybertexts, electronic and otherwise.

The book moves through entertaining and informative close discussions of four kinds of electronic texts: hypertexts, computer adventure games, computer-generated texts, and the collaborative environments called MUDs. With a strong of sense of the history and development of each, Aarseth provides insight into the dynamics of these species of cybertext. He does not settle for easy applications of, for instance, poststructuralism to hypertexts or narratology to adventure games. Instead, he works out where such methodologies are valid and where they fail, then develops new approaches as needed.

Even though it's unlikely that the field of electronic literature will reach a stasis point anytime soon, the ideas Aarseth develops (including the hypertext dynamic of aporia and epiphany, the "intrigue" at work in the adventure game, and the general concepts of cybertext and ergodic literature) will continue to be useful in the future. While new forms will emerge, existing forms will continually shift and change, and some forms will fall away (as the chapter on adventure games reminds us), what Aarseth has discovered about current forms will help us to understand--and create--the forms of tomorrow.

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