Posts Tagged With: ergodic literature

Perspectives On Ergodic Literature Within The Field Of Writing

As I wrote in my prior reflection about the creation of Topaz Galaxies, generative poetry is a completely different form of composition and experience than that of traditional, print-based literature—even nonlinear, print-based literature at that. Ergodic literature is distinctive in both its composition process and the reading, or interaction with it. Espen Aarseth, author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature defines ‘cybertext’ as, “the wide range of (or perspective) of possible textualities seen as a typology of machines, as various kinds of literary communication systems where the functional differences among the mechanical parts play a defining role in determining the aesthetic process” (p. 13).

This said, when approaching eLit, or cybertext, or ergodic literature, we must first recognize our expectations and biases that are subconsciously carried over from prior experience with print-based literature. For example, one expectation could be that the narrative must “make sense” in terms of its use, placement, or arrangement of channels of language (i.e., words, phrases, numbers, punctuation, etc.) Typically, we  approach a piece of writing thinking we are supposed to ‘get something out of it’, and the ‘thing’ we are supposed to get out of it  has been (mostly) pre-determined and pre-designed for us. (Just think of novels, newspaper articles and poetry. Most, on some level, operate within the framework of information transmission; and in line with this structural dynamic, the human act of  ‘reading’ is simply the exchange we make to get the message that the text contains.

Now, the metaphor for ergodic literature is more like what occurs in a dream-state: we are constructing meaning as we interact within the dream and simultaneously we are also constructing the dream itself. Using generative poetry for example, the meaning is created by the complex process of interacting with the text on multiple levels. Aarseth writes, “There is a short circuit between the signifier and the signified, a suspension of difference that projects an objective level beyond the text, a primary metaphysical structure that generates both textual sign and our understanding of it, rather than the other way around” (p. 3).  Looking closer at the transmission/translation process, which occurs inside the mind of the user and stems from the combination of physical, sensory experience and the technical nature of the medium: “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” (p. 2-3). And, it is from this perspective that Aarseth introduces the concept of “nontrivial effort” (p. 2) on the part of the reader, which is decidedly different than what a person engages in when they read a book or a magazine—and, I would argue, even literature that is consumed in a digital space but constructed in a structure lent from a static, print-based ideas.

Now, examining the production and consumption of texts, and thus of literature, within the context of digital spaces, we must ask the question: can ergodic compositions and other forms of cybertext truly be considered literature?

If we examine the outworkings of culture, we see the creation and evolution of phenomena like the genre, for example.  Just as art imitates life, genres are birthed as offspring of a particular era, and they reflect the experience and values of the people. My point being: we can’t simply dismiss forms of expression because they don’t neatly fit within the construct of canonized works. When we relegate forms of composition to a place illegitimacy, it is often because we have approached them with misplaced expectations that (usually unintentionally) carry over from previous interactions, whose mental paradigms are rooted in constructs that are alien to the work at hand. But alas, culture evolves. And so do ways of communicating and interacting.

Franco Moretti, in his book Graphs, Maps, Trees, (2005) discusses abstract models for literary history; he argues, (quoting Mentre), “The aesthetic sphere [and thus, I would argue, the arts] is perhaps the most appropriate to reflect overall changes of mental climate” (p. 21). Further, regarding cultural evolution, Moretti argues that a ”generation style” depends entirely on “the trigger action of the social and cultural process” (p. 21).  Nelson, in Computer lib/Dream machines argues that the computer is a “projective system” and writes, “The things people try to do with movies, TV, and the more glamorous uses of the computer, whereby it makes pictures on the screens—are strange foldovers of the rest of the mind and heart. That’s the peculiar origami of the self” (p. 305).  In our emergent culture, we can conclude that technology, and thus electronic literature (eLit), are manifestations of society. Therefore, when we examine digital works, it should be with the intent of discovering changes in our social topographic landscape. As Aarseth argues, “If these texts redefine literature by expanding our notion of it . . . then they must also redefine what is literary, and therefore they cannot be measured by an old, unmodified aesthetics” (p. 13).

In sum, these new kinds of literature are already literature simply because they are external manifestations of a present cultural current; and that current is active and alive, evolving and growing—whether we want to acknowledge it as being legitimate or not in the canonized sense. If we can appreciate electronic literature by placing ourselves within its ecology, we can then perhaps begin to awaken our faculties to expressions that were already present within us, but were never given voice to because the external apparatus (conduit) wasn’t yet realized.  But now, we have a whole new playing field.


Aarseth, E. (1997). Introduction: Ergodic literature. In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from [pdf]

Moretti, F. (2007). Graphs, Maps, Trees. London, New York: Verso.

Nelson (1974, 1981). Computer lib / Dream machines. In N. Wardrip-Fruin (Ed), The new media reader (pp. 303 – 338). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. [pdf]

Categories: elit, ergodic literature, information architecture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transform, Girl: A generative poem and reflections

Transform,Girl, my generative poem, was a fun and unique writing experience! Check it out, and then read my reflections below!!


My generative poem was largely about the idea of naming and the way that names we use to identify people change during different phases of our lives. Specifically, my poem focuses on “nice” names and “mean” names. The names I chose were all names I have been called throughout my life, both good and bad. In some cases, not all the “mean” names are really mean, but in the context of the poem, and in the context they were used, they were intended to hurt. For example, names like “nerd, geek, and lesbian,” are all in the mean names section, even though there is no real problem self-identifying as though names. I wanted my poem to show the impact that naming can have on people throughout their lifetimes, so I chose names that were related to childhood as well as adulthood, like “Sweet pea” and “Lover,” respectively. Some of the names are more like titles, but they still function as an identifier. I picked verbs that would create a sense of tension between the two names, so that the above (nice) names would be split by either a happy or sad verb. The effect was interesting. The nice names would be split by a sad verb and the transformation would be completed by the mean name. For example, “Dearest becomes choke it back you PSYCHO.,” shows the transformation from “Dearest” to “Psycho.” The verb that splits the nouns is forceful and aggressive. The lines that break the transformative sentences often come out sounding hopeful, for example “My Love escape”,and when sandwiched between two transformative sentences the effect is jarring. Alternatively, when a mean name is next to a nice verb, like “LOSER rejoice,” the effect is more harsh. I like the way it came out, alternating between pain and happiness constantly. I wrote the mean names in all caps to make it feel as though someone was yelling while you were reading, and I like the way it separates the mean words from the rest of the poem and makes them jump out from the page. The indented lines show hope and longing, and are combined with varying adjectives that either sound happy or sad. These breaks are intended to show that no matter how much others may try to break you down, there will still be some shred of hope, even if it is convoluted (by odd adjectives.) I also picked very bright, obnoxious colors to make the poem hard to ignore.

I really enjoyed crafting a poem this way. I think it made me have to think of things from new perspectives, because the poem would always generate differently and be seen by different people at different times with different experiences and perspectives. Because of the nature of the generative poem, I had to write it so that it would be accessible to everyone and make sense (for the most part) no matter how it generated. I also had to pay attention to the way the code looked and the structure of how it was written, for example, all of the above words are nice names, all the below words are mean names, etc. I knew some people would be looking at the code to see how it was structured, so I needed to keep it uniform for appropriate poem-telling and meaningful structure. Overall I loved having to think about poetry in a completely new way. I think it will make my future poetry more nuanced because I will be paying attention to more details!



Cybertext may seem like it does not fall under the category of “literature” because it is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of literature. Although cybertext may not be traditional literature, cybertext is not as different than we think. One of the many complaints about cybertext is its level of nonlinearity. Cybertext tends to be different in each reading, but so is any novel! We all bring different perspectives to literature every time we read. According to Epsen Aarseth’s experiences in his chapter on “Ergodic Literature,” many literary theorists say that “all literature is indeterminate, nonlinear, and different for every reading.” (2). Therefore, even traditional literature is indeterminate! Our interpretations may change for each reading, whether we are reading cybertext or a novel. Likewise, readers of cybertext are often more “in control” of their reading experiences. They are able to make choices and understand text differently because of their individual choices. Different readers may take away different meanings. But Aarseth again cites literary theorists who argue that readers of all literature, cyber or traditional, must make decisions to understand the text (2). This is perhaps why, in a classroom setting, students have more than one interpretation of the same novel. Both of these arguments Aarseth rebuts in his chapter, because he says many literary theorists who make these arguments are not well-versed in cybertext, but I think the theorists may be, in some ways, correct. Cybertext is ergodic literature, in the sense that Aarseth defines ergodic as “requiring work,” because it requires the reader, or user, to become a more active participant. But cybertext is still literature. Cybertext falls into another separate facet of the literature umbrella.

So what does the idea of cybertext as literature say about traditional literature? Well, it means that we need to think more critically about how we structure literature and how we view literature as whole. If literature is written in response to our society and what our society finds interesting/important/pertinent, then cybertext is an outpouring of our ever-changing society. Traditional literature is often a reflection of societal shifts (think Dickens and any of his novels written in response to the industrial revolution!), and, if cybertext is ergodic literature, and thus literature, what is cybertext written in response to? According to Lev Manovich in his piece “Cultural Software” software, or what allows us to create things like cybertext, permeates all areas of contemporary society (7). Therefore, the software that helps shape cybertext is necessitated by society. Think about it, our current society is based on fast-paced technologies, so we can’t expect things like literature to remain entirely stagnant and unchanging. In a society where we can build almost anything our minds can create, why wouldn’t we rethink ways to present literature? The software of cybertext directly influences its presentation and structure, so we build cybertext around the software created by society. HTML and JAVA code exists to run webpages, so authors have adapted this code structure to re-imagine poetry and storytelling. Similarly, our society demands customization and individuality, and cybertext offers Aarseth’s ergodic component of reader-driven experiences, making it work seamlessly with the desires of contemporary readers. In a way, cybertext has sprung up before many of us realized we wanted or needed it, much the way any new form of expression begins. Traditional literature may always remain popular, but cybertext meets many of the new desires of our rapidly changing society.

Cybertext may be met with skepticism at first, like any revolutionary invention, but soon I believe it will be considered functional and beautiful literature. Cybertext forces readers to stretch their minds and work for understanding. It keeps readers on their toes and allows for unique experiences. Cybertext can be revisited and may never become stale and expected. It seems cybertext is the quirky new friend, while traditional literature is the old, steady companion. Neither one if better than the other, and they are still friends–they just bring different things to the party!

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