CyberText Yearbook 2000
Editor: Markku Eskelinen, Raine Koskimaa
Publisher: University of Jyvakyla, Finland: Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, 2000
Review Published: December 2001
The editors of CyberText Yearbook 2000 give their introduction a title that demands your attention and provokes your sense of irony. "There is No Easy Way to Repeat This" echoes the first line of the first hyperfiction, Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story (1987), a work that seems to endlessly repeat itself. The title is further ironic because the Yearbook repeats and expands upon its intellectual predecessor -- Espen Aarseth's Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997). As defined by Aarseth, cybertext is neither a subject matter nor a formal genre, but rather a perspective: "From the cybertextual point of view texts not simply are, but they do things" (7). According to Aarseth, cybertexts prompt their users to do things; they are "ergodic" forms (an important term left undefined by the editors). Aarseth is worth quoting again here: "The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own usethat automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users" (179). Thus, cybertext theory is a function-oriented perspective that "focuses on mechanical organization of text" and on its user (1). This is an important point for connecting the diverse essays in CyberText Yearbook 2000, part of a series published by the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture out of the University of Jyvakyla that aims for a multi-disciplinary audience by focusing on contemporary culture and cultural theory.
This is not a Yearbook meant (a la Life's "Year in Review") to provide a cursory overview of the year in cybertexts, hence the absence of fundamental definitions about cybertext. The editors state that their aim is "to create a broad forum for cybertext discussion, in which practitioners, developers, designers, users, critics, and scholars may participate" (12). However, there is a category glaringly absent from the list of intended readers-students. The Yearbook addresses people already versed in the subject of cybertext and seeks to get them "talking across traditions, practices, conventions, and technologies" (12). The image of people crossing disciplinary divides through discourse presents the Yearbook as a bridge. However, a bridge can be stretched too thin, causing the speech to become inaudible and confusing. The Yearbook suffers from such strain, teetering as it reaches to speak across too many fields.
Moving chronologically through the Yearbook, the first essay is "Transfiction" by Alok Nandi and Xavier Marichal, a technical piece about a program that can/will be integrated into literary and artistic endeavors. Written in a clear, straightforward manner, the article describes transfiction as "transportation in fictional spaces" (14). A person's image is filmed and transported into a virtual environment through a collaboration between film and computers. Transfiction creates an audience by engaging people situated either at the installation site or connected via computer network. Although the essay sticks to describing the specifics of the technology, it provokes interesting questions about the nature of fictional space and the body of the reader/user in the narrative plane. Exploring how technological innovations expand the possibilities of cybertext, the essay provides an interesting beginning to the CyberText Yearbook.
Jill Walker's "Do You Think You're Part of This?" explores the use of the pronoun and implied person "you" as a means for distinguishing cybertext from traditional narrative. While "[y]ou, the reader or listener, have been addressed since ancient times" in most narrative forms, "[y]ou're not expected to answer" (35). In contrast, "[i]n hypertexts, games, and certain other electronic texts, an apostrophe to the reader can and often does require a response" (35). Walker is interested in the performative nature of a relationship that makes "you seem to be part of the texts you read and the games you play" (35). This is a productive and playful avenue for analysis, partly in that it distances itself from the often recursive attempts to define interactivity and quantify agency in hypertext. Walker's clear, casual writing style glides between simple observations and declarative statements; it sometimes seems to skim rather than probe, however, this is more of an exploration than an argument. For instance, Walker concludes the section "Role-playing: filling the 'you'" with a provoking sentence: "You literally can't play if you don't submit to the code" (41). However, the concepts and constructs of user submission and the layered meanings of "code" are left unexplored. The essay lays the foundation for, but refrains from engaging in, discussion about the specific you -- gender, race, and the body. Walker's essay provides a moment of intellectual, albeit cursory, exploratory play that functions as a hyperlink, prompting "you" to make connections.
In "(Introduction to) Cybertext Narratology," Marrkku Eskelinen combines Aarseth's discussion of cybertext with the narrative models of Gerard Genette, Seymour Chatman, and Gerald Prince in order to distinguish cybertext from hypertext. The basic premise of the article is that contrary to traditional hypertext theory, "hypertext does not change" (55). In contrast, Eskelinen perceives cybertexts as working in a feedback loop with the user: "cybertext fiction reads its readers and reacts back by changing itself far more profoundly that by simply playing around with conditional links" (52). Eskelinen makes an interesting point in discussing the variations of mastery granted to the user: "in hypertext narrative, users are capable of affecting only the aspect of order, but not those of frequency and speed" (55). He then identifies the various temporalities at work in cybertext in order to conclude, rightly, that these narrative characteristics demand new modes of thinking about narratology. However, the Yearbook's editorial disparagement for hypertext (which I will discuss later) seeps into this essay, resulting in the same theoretical underpinnings for which Eskelinen faults hypertext theorists. Take, for example, the following statement: "To sum up: hypertext offers no challenges to narratology and cybertext offers far too many" (61). Besides the overstatement, the constant comparison and competition between hypertext and cybertext, whose differences (like print and hypertext or modernism and postmodernism) can be endlessly debated, ironically mirrors the practice of the hypertext theorists that the editors disdain.
The interviews, with Brian McHale and John Cayley, are refreshing intermissions from the essays. In "The Sense of Technology in Postmodern Poetry," Brian McHale is interesting, insightful, and informative. He explains the work of a number of postmodern poets, both American and European, and names many others; indeed, the interview contains a rich syllabus for postmodern poetry. Although the interview produces interesting meditations on the convergence between technology and poetry, the editors' insistence on focusing on Aarseth's theories often proves both leading and limiting. Take, for instance, RK's question: "What do you think about Espen Aarseth's theory of cybertextuality? I find it quite useful in the way it is independent of the medium . . . " (72). McHale responds politically: "It is really attractive . . . It has the power of hindsight . . . but its risk is that it produces an illusion of progressivism, as though we had been working always towards the ideal technological platform for this kind of practise, and now we've finally got it" (72).
Raine Koskimaa's "Reading Victory Garden: Competing Interpretations and Loose Ends" presents itself as a piece of literary analysis about a hypertext, a genre of criticism which is both scarce and vital to the future electronic narrative. However, the essay provides only what its title promises; it compares interpretations about Victory Garden, but it does not argue in favor of one. Koskimaa makes an important point in his conclusion, which can be read as attempting to preempt criticism such as mine: "there is no sense at all anymore in aiming at all-encompassing interpretation(s)" (137). Although I agree that like its post-postmodern subject, literary criticism must reject the single grand narrative explanation, I contend that literary critics must continue to present analytical arguments of literary works. Approaching hypertexts like Victory Garden from a critical and analytical angle, as is done with print literature, is something that future critics will have to do.
An interesting entry in the Yearbook is the essay "GZIGZAG: A Platform for Cybertext Experiments" by Tuomas Lukka and Katarina Ervasti. The article discusses the process of building GzigZag, "a computer paradigm invented by Ted Nelson" (141), by the Hyperstructure Group at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. The program's innovation is that unlike current applications it is not organized into folders, files, and applications. It therefore aims to replace compartimentalization with interconnection. The essay is an interesting window into the creative act of technical development. Aiming to create a truly open forum of discourse, the essay includes a final footnote that gives a Web and email address where you can respond to the essay.
The Yearbook's forefather also contributes an essay. Espen Aarseth's "Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games" is an exploration of computer games as an artistic genre. Its explanation of space and spatiality is fundamental to discussions about cybertext and could benefit the book by being placed earlier. Aarseth writes: "what distinguishes the cultural genre of computer games from others such as novels or movies . . . is its preoccupation with space" (161). Games "celebrate and explore spatial representation as their central motif and raison d'etre" (161). Aarseth concludes his essay with a statement that demands and entices further analysis. He writes that computer games "pretend to portray space in ever more realistic ways, but rely on their deviation from reality in order to make the illusion playable" (169). This paradoxical and symbiotic need for a gap between reality and virtuality in the creation of simulation is an idea which deserves further analysis.
Although the next essay, Gonzalo Frasca's "Ephermeral Games: Is It Barbaric to Design Videogames after Auschwitz?," hints at exploring this topic, it ultimately falls fatally short of providing further analysis or expansion on the subject of computer games primarily because it operates on debilitating bad taste. Frasca pursues an interesting idea: "computer game design conventions have structural characteristics which prevent them from dealing with 'serious' content" (172). However, the example of serious content that Frasca uses is the Holocaust, a subject which is more than serious content, it is the unspeakable content (as Adorno, to whom Frasca's title alludes, understands). Frasca asks "Why, then, has no one tried to develop a humanist game about the Holocaust?" (173). Besides the self-defeating tastelessness of the essay's example, its underlying question is an interesting one. Can games teach and develop humanistic behavior? Frasca points out that in games, "action is irreversible" (177), a fact that can be used to teach responsibility. Frasca proposes a "one-session game of narration" (180), an irreversible, one-try (like life) game. Frasca's idea deserves a better context for its presentation.
Taken as a whole, the two main problems with the Yearbook are both on the part of the editors. First, the placement of essays in the Yearbook is often questionable. Although the juxtaposition of diverse essays creates an expansive breadth on the subject of cybertext, this mode neglects opportunities to elaborate upon individual essays through their contextual placement. Although the book is about cybertext, a medium in which the reading order is determined by the reader, the editors often seem to forget that the Yearbook is a print text whose chronological and ordered placement produce the experience of reading the text.
My second, but foremost, grievance with the Yearbook is the disdainful tone for hypertext that seeps into the editorial spaces, primarily into the interviews and introduction. The editors' disparagement of early hypertext theorists, who are their (and Aarseth's) predecessors, often becomes ugly and results in the reproduction of a narrow critical viewpoint. For example, the editors state: "[t]o us cybertext theory in its analytical clarity is superior to hypertext theory and its amusing, undeniably influential and theoretically untenable notions of convergence, interactivity, and wreaders (for starters)" (8). I quote this sentence in its entirety to highlight the disdain that accompanies the editors rejection of the term "hypertext" and the theory surrounding it. Whereas Aarseth rejects hypertext theory in order to found his concept of ergodic cybertext, his criticism maintains respect for the scholars whose work preceded and prompted his own. In contrast, the editors of the Yearbook exert a constant, frontal attack on hypertext and hypertext theory. The Yearbook aggressively attempts to distinguish cybertext from hypertext, and the Yearbook from other compilations of essays about electronic textuality, but in doing so, the text repeats the same overblown claims and charges of which it accuses its adversary.
Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Jessica Pressman is a doctoral student at UCLA, where she is specializing in electronic literature and hypertextual narrative. She is also the Programs Assistant for the Electronic Literature Organization, whose headquarters are at UCLA. <Jesspres@aol.com>
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