Notes for Espen J. Aarseth “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory”, 1994
Key concepts: cybertext, ergography, feedback functions, hypertext, informative, interpretable, nonlinearity, script, simulation, text, texton, traversal function.
T&T studies emphasizes ethnography over textual anthropology, primarily operating in text, hypertext, and cybertext investigations, whereas my version of CSS insists on experimentation beyond crafting fortuitous deformations, the default, for it seems like all bets are off in the region of indeterminate cybertext, where the Big Other is likely to most clearly speak to humans. Informative and interpretable aspects of texts. Texts are cross products of linguistic, technological, historical matricies. Basic units of texts are textons, which are arbitrarily long strings of graphemes, plus traversal functions. Variates if nonlinear texts include: topology, dynamics, determinability, transiency, maneuverability, user-functionality. Four feedback functions: explorative, role-playing, configurative, poetic. Four degrees of nonlinearity, from static to indeterminate dynamic cybertext. Difference between hypertext and cybertext is the latter's self-changing ability. Cybertextuality adds ontological category of simulation. Examples of nonlinear unit operations.
Related theorists: Bolter, Fontanier, Landow, Michael Joyce, Ryan.
(762) In the conceptual framework
presented here, the linear text may be seen as a special case of the
nonlinear in which the convention is to read word by word from
beginning to end.
(762) It must immediately be pointed out that this concept refers only to the physico-logical form (or arrangement, appearance) of the texts, and not to any fictional meaning or external reference they might have.
Behind the Lines: What is a Text, Anyway?
Informative and interpretable aspects of texts.
We then have two perspectives: the text as a technical, historical,
and social object and the text as it is individually received and
understood. These aspects, which we might call the informative
are governed by different rules, but they are interdependent and
influence (and sometimes intrude on) each other in many ways.
(763) In addition to its visible words and spaces, which we may call the script, a text includes a practice, a structure or ritual of use.
(763) The interpretable aspect of the text is that which makes it different; to be blunt, it is that which makes it worth reading.
This is a bizarre claim to which on first reading I object giving the example of ontological interactivity that lies and pretends to be linear: perhaps Aarseth intends the obvious, believing that all print texts are linear, static, and that static texts do not secretly compute; and nonlinear as implying ontological interactivity require their electronic substrate.
(764) the linear can flirt with nonlinearity, but the nonlinear
cannot lie and pretend to be linear.
(764) What is a text? Or, to rephrase it, Which elements and effects belong to the text and which do not? . . . does the author's name belong to a text? . . . it is the name, not the person behind it, that is important. The name belongs to the text, the writer (or ghostwriter) does not.
The original would be the author imagined text guiding the physical production that becomes the text, or abandon idea of real behind text.
(764) we prefer the original imagined integrity of a metaphysical
object to the stable version that we observe.
(765) The alternative, of course, is to abandon the concept of a real text-behind-the-text altogether.
Compare this to Ryan myth of the Aleph, and Castells invoking the Aleph from Borges for the totalizing submergence of prior discrete media into digital processing, the real virtualities in which we now live much of our perceptual lives: this is really a description of how running software may be understood as texts, along with images, too, going far beyond the zoographia grammata unit operation of antiquity through postliteracy.
(765) In this sense, a text or film is like a limited language in which all the parts are known, but the full potential of their combinations is not.
Scales of change of metamorphosis; compare to Berry modes of software. What? Is this ridiculous to consider? (a Socratic operator)
(765) There are many scales of change in a text's metamorphosis: unintentional . . . usurpatory . . . plagiary . . . and subversive or estranging . . . [s]ome of the results of some of these operations we might accept as authentic new works, others not, according to the cultural legitimacy of their method of construction or their operator; or, in the case of a new aesthetic system, depending on contemporary empathy with the perceived political symbolism of the mode of mutation.
To study textuality in its situated, media specific and cultural contexts, asking about textualities as what Hayles describes as shimmering signifiers how it may occur in virtual realities computed by machines, living in the thoughts of machines and passing through human thoughts as well.
These transboundary phenomena trace human machine symbiosis.
(765) What remains to be investigated, then, is the possibility that textuality exists beyond metaphysics, through location, anatomy, and temporality.
Texts are cross products of linguistic, technological, historical matricies.
(766) To clarify the fundamental mechanisms of texts, we should study text as information. . . . A text is not what we may read out of it, nor is it identical with what someone once wrote into it. It is something more, a potential that can be realized only partially and only through its script. . . . Texts are cross products between a set of matrices – linguistic (the script), technological (the mechanical conditions), and historical (the socio-political context); and because of the temporal instability of all of these variables, texts are processes impossible to terminate and reduce. This perspective lets us include nonlinear texts, many of which have no author (or even reader) in the traditional sense.
A Typology of Nonlinear
Use of nonlineary from mathematics, not physical sciences.
(766) The use of the term nonlinearity in this essay is grounded in mathematics and not inspired by the modern physical sciences.
version of topology studies ways various sections of text connected
in terms of intentional design rather than physical appearance.
(766) the textonomical version of topology may be described as “the study of the ways in which the various sections of a text are connected, disregarding the physical properties of the channel (paper, stone, electromagnetic, and so on), by means of which the text is transmitted.
(767) This unit, which is best conceived as an arbitrarily long string of graphemes, is identified by its relation to the other units as constrained and separated by the conventions or mechanisms of their mother text.
Basic units of texts are textons, which are arbitrarily long strings of graphemes, plus traversal functions.
As a suitable name for such a unit I suggest texton,
which denotes a basic element of textuality.
(767) In addition to its textons, a text consists of one or more traversal functions, the conventions and mechanisms that combine and project textons as scriptons to the user (or reader) of the text.
Variates applied to nonlinear texts (see Texts of Change): toplogy, dynamics, determinability, transiency, maneuverability, user-functionality.
Below is a list of the variates, slightly adapted from my Texts
in which they are developed and discussed at length and applied to a
set of nonlinear
Four feedback functions in addition to interpretive function of user: explorative, role-playing, configurative, poetic; note theorists seem to present sets of four or so key concepts (for example, Ryan).
(768) Besides the interpretive function of the user, which of course is present in the use of both linear and nonlinear textuality, the user of nonlinear texts may be described in terms of four active feedback functions: the explorative function, in which the user decides which “path” to take; the role-playing function, in which the user assumes strategic responsibility for a “character” in a “world” described by the text; the configurative function in which textons and/or traversal functions are in part chosen and/or designed by the user; and the poetic function, in which the user's actions, dialogue, or design are aesthetically motivated.
Four degrees of nonlinearity, from static to indeterminate dynamic cybertext.
(768) As a simplified synthesis of this model I now propose four pragmatic categories, or degrees, of nonlinearity: (1) the simple nonlinear text, whose textons are totally static, open and explorable by the user; (2) the discontinuous nonlinear text, or hypertext, which may be traversed by “jumps” (explicit links) between textons; (3) the determinate “cybertext,” in which the behavior of textons is predictable but conditional and with the element of role-playing; and (4) the indeterminate cybertext in which textons are dynamic and unpredictable.
The Readerless Text
(769) Without doubt, the most prominent and popular nonlinear text in history must be the famous Chinese work of oracular wisdom, I Ching or Book of Changes.
I Ching as expert system, readerless text; this answers a question I have been asking myself for years.
The Book of
not be the world's first text, but it is certainly the first expert
system based on the principles of binary computing that very much
later became automated by electricity and the vacuum tube.
(770) The user of I Ching relates the scripton directly to his or her individual situation, and the interpretation, following the ritual of producing the hexagram, can only be done by the individual.
Hypertext Is Not What You (May) Think
Bush memex user modeled after traditional academic author; hypertext jump equates to switching print texts, the lest topographical mode of nonlinearity.
But it should be pointed out that in his fascinating vision – his
is as much a problem (the “maze”) as a solution (the “trail”).
. . . This may seem more radical than it actually is, with subversive
political consequences for the world of literature and art; but
Bush's user is clearly modeled on the traditional academic
(771) This rhetoric fails to hide the fact that the main feature of hypertext is discontinuity – the jump – the sudden displacement of the user's position in the text. Pure hypertext is actually among the least topographical modes of nonlinearity.
(772) Thus, Afternoon, arguably the first literary hypertext, turns out to be something more: a cybertext disguised in hypertext's clothing.
(772) To expand the notion of hypertext by subsuming other computer-mediated textual communication phenomena such as Usenet (see Bolter) or intertextual allusion (see Landow) will only render the concept useless for critical discourse.
Death and Cybernetics in the Ever-ending Text
Difference between hypertext and cybertext is the latters self-changing ability.
If literary hypertext is a new form of computer-mediated textuality,
cybertext is a fairly old one, going back to the 1960s if not longer.
. . . A cybertext is a self-changing text, in which scriptons and
traversal functions are controlled by an immanent cybernetic agent,
either mechanical or human.
(773) The history of computer-mediated cybertexts can be traced to two different sources, both originating from fields of computer science, and both with their memorable ur-texts.
(773) The basic structure of Adventure can be described not as a topography but as an ergography, the textually represented laborious progress of the main character/narratee/user; the text's “you.”
The game Adventure as example of determinate, ergographic cybertext.
(774) Adventure and most texts like it are determinate, intransient, and intratextonically dynamic, with completely controlled access to scriptons. . . . The main character is simply dead, erased, and must begin again. The narratee, on the other hand, is explicitly told what happened, usually in a sarcastic manner, and offered a chance to start anew. The user, aware of all this in a way denied to the narratee, learns from the mistakes and previous experience and is able to play a different game.
Absent structure of determinate cybertext is the plot.
(774) If the absent structure of narrative is the key problem in literary hypertext, in determinate cybertext the absent structure is the plot. Since without a user there can be no action (praxis) in a determinate cybertext, the concept of story (fabula) is meaningless.
“The Lingo of the Cable”: Travels in Cybertextuality
Indeterminate cybertext, for example MUDs, beyond genre, not against genre.
Indeterminate cybertext should be seen as a movement not against, but
As the simulation of social structure becomes richer, plot control
becomes increasingly difficult; and it is easy to predict the
decentered cybertext in which stories, plots, and counterplots arise
“naturally” from the autonomous movements of the cybernetic
(775) it should be noted that telegraph and later the telex was the method of instant global textual communication during a period of more than a hundred years, before digital computer networks came into being in the 1960s and '70s. However, with the computer's ability to handle more than two communicators simultaneously, new types of nonlocal textual for a were made possible.
(776) At the end of the 1970s, with the spread of the highly popular Adventure over the networks, it was to be expected that someone should combine instant textual communication and adventure gaming.
(776) When regarded as literary objects, MUDs seem to defy every concept of literary theory.
MUDs are to be experienced, not read.
(776) A discussion of MUDs in terms of authors and readers is irrelevant: a MUD cannot be read, only experienced from the very narrow perspective of one or more of the user's characters, with a lot of simultaneous scriptons being beyond reach.
The Limits of Fiction
Cybertextuality adds ontological category of simulation.
(777) Cybertextuality has an empirical element that is not found in fiction and that necessitates an ontological category of its own, which might as well be called simulation.
(777) there is a systematic contract between text and user, like the causal one that exists in the real world and which, unlike fictions, can be empirically tested. . . . Unlike fictions, which simply present something else, cybertexts represent something beyond themselves.
The Rhetoric of Nonlinearity
Examples of nonlinear rhetorical unit operations, following Pierre Fontanier: forking, linking/jumping, permutation, computation, polygenesis.
(777) If we turn to rhetoric, we see that nonlinearity is clearly not a trope, since it works on the level of words, not meaning; but it could be classified as a type of figure, following Pierre Fontanier's taxonomy of tropes and figures. . . . Among these classes we could place the figures of nonlinearity, with the following set of subclasses: forking, linking/jumping, permutation, computation, and polygenesis.
Corruption of the Critic
(778) If hypertext has connected well with literary studies, cybertext, a much older textual phenomenon, has gone by largely unnoticed.
Immersion the difference between hypertexts like Afternoon and cybertexts like Adventure.
(778) The key difference between Afternoon and cybertexts such as Adventure and TinyMUD is what the virtual reality researchers call immersion: the user's convinced sense that the artificial environment is not just a main agent with whom they can identify but surrounds the user. In cybertextual terms we could say that the user assumes the strategic and emotional responsibility of the character, or that the distances between the positions of main character, narratee, and user have collapsed.
Problems of “Textual Anthropology”
Thus texts and technology studies emphasizes ethnography over textual anthropology, primarily operating in text, hypertext, and cybertext investigations.
My version of CSS insists on experimentation beyond crafting fortuitous deformations, the default: seems like all bets are off in the region of indeterminate cybertext, where the Big Other is likely to most clearly speak to humans.
(778) This empirical evolution makes possible a shift in method from
a philological to an anthropological approach in which the object of
study is a process (the changing text) rather than a project (the
static text). On-line phenomena and particularly MUDs, with their
fluid exchanges of textual praxis, offer unique opportunities for the
study of rhetoric, semiotics, and cultural communication in
(779) Like the user, the critic must be there when it happens. Not only that but, like the participant observer of social anthropology, he or she must make it happen – improvise, mingle with the natives, play roles, provoke response.
(779) An anthropology of MUDs, for instance, should not see as its primary object the rituals and interactions between the characters inside; but rather the relation between the outside participants (the users) and their inside symbolic actions. Literary theory, on the other hand, should not focus on the social behavior made possible by textual symbols, but on how the sign system is used to construct and explore the possibility of a text-based representation of identity.
(779-780) Here I have focused not on the effects and insights produced by the various branches of literary theory when applied to nonlinear texts but on the potential for new perspectives on literature in general that the study of nonlinear textuality might bring us.
Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. The NewMediaReader. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. 762-780. Print.