What Cybertext Theory Can't Do

What Cybertext Theory Can't Do

2001-02-15

A reluctant response to Markku Eskelinen.

I didn’t want to write this riposte to Markku Eskelinen’s “Cybertext Theory: What An English Professor Should Know Before Trying,” but I was provoked into it. I didn’t want to write it because I admire Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext (Hopkins, 1997) and think it has made important contributions to the field of electronic textuality, and more generally to our understanding of texts that make the user do nontrivial work to engage them. reviewed by Nick Montfort in ebr 00/01; Hayles riPOSTes to Montfort’s review Moreover, I believe that positive contributions to a field are generally more desirable and useful than negative comments. The provocation comes not from Eskelinen’s sarcasm (about which more later). Rather, it derives from the exaggerated claims implicit and often explicit in Eskelinen’s treatment of cybertext theory. Lest this important theoretical tool be inflated beyond its proper scope and so made less useful to the development of the field, I think it is important to set the record straight and be rigorously careful about what cybertext theory cannot do, as well as what it can do. Hence my comments on its limitations.

Like all functionalist theories, cybertext theory elides materiality in order to create a template based on function, generally casting a blind eye to how these functions are instantiated in particular media. Cybernetics made much the same move when it reduced complex physiological and biological processes to “functions” and then claimed there were no essential differences between biological organisms and machines, because both carried out the same functions. Despite the frequency with which Aarseth and Eskelinen use the word “material,” in an important sense cybertext theory is very immaterial, for it largely ignores the material differences between, say, computer-generated text, the I Ching, and print novels. Of course the generality it attains by doing so accounts for its power as a theory. But material differences between media do matter, and matter significantly, if one wishes to account for the specificity of reading practices, the responses of users or readers to particular texts, and the nuanced effects that different kinds of texts can achieve. Eskelinen seeks to dismiss such a focus as “essentialist,” but this misses the important point that essentialism is also a generalizing and abstract practice and in this sense has more in common with cybertext theory than it does with media-specific analysis, which seeks to be attentive not only to the specificity of particular media but also to the specificity of different kinds of effects within the same medium.

With its emphasis on a theoretical space of semiotic possibilities, cybertext theory is strongest on generating a theoretical heuristic grid with which to understand a wide variety of textual practices. By the same token, however, it is almost powerless to illuminate the possibilities of an individual text, beyond indicating the functions a text employs. It cannot tell us, for example, why or in what sense Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story (Eastgate Systems, 1990) succeeds as a narrative fiction, or why one text may be more compelling or memorable to users than another. To ask these questions is inevitably to get into what Eskelinen patronizingly calls a content oriented approach - but is not content, however postmodern, fragmented, contradictory, deconstructive, or elusive it might be, intimately involved in why most users read texts and especially why they return to them time after time?

A third limitation of cybertext theory, especially as interpreted by Eskelinen, is mistaking numerosity for analytical power. (Stanislaw Lem had something to say about this in his satire on the “King of the Multitudians” in The Cyberiad [Harvest Books, 1985].) Simply because cybertext theory predicts 576 different combinations, using Aarseth’s scheme for parsing the semiotic components of cybertexts, does not mean that all 576 combinations will be equally interesting or worthwhile. Nor does this number alone indicate the value of the theory, beyond setting up so many pigeonholes to be filled. Equally or more germane is what texts have done with the variables they choose to work with in exploring the nuances, complexities, and pleasures of a given configuration.

Another limitation emerges from Eskelinen’s championing of cybertext theory, which is not necessarily a limitation on the theory as such but rather on how he seeks to position it. He consistently opposes cybertext theory to hypertext, as though this were a natural or inevitable opposition. Yet he himself admits that hypertext emerges as a subset of cybertext in cybertext theory, so how can they be opposed? Rather, the “crucial question becomes how to negotiate and renegotiate the relationships between these two literatures: in what terms and whose. It’s also a question of autonomy and authority…” (“Introduction,” para. 4). Precisely. With this revealing admission, his program stands revealed as thoroughly ideological. in ebr (Winter 1995/96) Hayles noted a similar ideological tendency in Diane Greco’s Cyborg Clearly his agenda is to champion cybertext theory as the best theory around and denigrate everything associated with hypertext. Hence the interesting slippages in his article where he is at once trying to throw hypertext off the playing field and also claim it as his own (albeit as a minor star in the firmament of cybertext theory). His slurs against such pioneering figures as George Landow (Hypertext 2.0, Hopkins, 1998), Jane Yellowlees Douglas (The End of Books, or Books Without End, Michigan, 2001), and Lev Manovich (The Language of New Media, MIT, 2001) ignore the ways in which these theorists have contributed to theories of electronic textuality, including cybertext theory (insofar as it addresses electronic literature along with other kinds of cybertexts). It is easy to see what mistakes earlier writers have made, which later writers are able to avoid partly because they have the work of the pioneers to build on. He also ignores the important on-going work of people who focus on links but seek to use them in innovative and nuanced ways, as detailed for example in Jeff Parker’s article in the same issue, “A Poetics of the Link”. As a follower of Aarseth, Eskelinen is more dogmatic and ideological than the theorist he has adopted (a well-known phenomenon observed with Marxists who are more dogmatic than Marx, Freudians who are more doctrinaire than Freud, Derridians who are more inflexible and less subtle than Derrida, etc.). Ironically Eskelinin is quick to claim other disciplines want to “colonize” cybertext, while engaging in a rhetoric that in its ideological excesses is as imperialistic as anything I have read in recent years.

Which brings me to my final point. Eskelinen claims that one of cybertext theory’s advantages is its ability to protect the field of “cybertext” against the encroachments of other disciplines and approaches, something that he claims “hypertext theory” is powerless to do. Such comments would suggest that he is concerned about the state of the field and wants it to flourish. Why then drive wedges between those who hold stakes in the distinct but closely related fields of cybertext, electronic literature, digital textuality, new media, and computer games? In exaggerating the differences between the textual practices loosely identified with hypertext and those with cybertext, he risks splitting a field that is still in its nascent stages into even more marginal fragments. Would it not make more sense to take an ecumenical approach that seeks to show how different theories make different kinds of contributions in ways that may be complementary rather than antagonistic? Simply by virtue of making choices and identifying areas of focus, no theory can be everything to everybody.

Although I have been provoked into a response, there are some areas into which I do not care to go. I refrain from commenting on his violations of ordinary civility. I remark only on the obvious, that ridicule is not a reason, that sarcasm cannot replace argument, that insult erodes community. I want to close by noting the strong contributions that Eskelinen makes. He clearly articulates the power of cybertext theory; he writes vividly and with real enthusiasm about the potential of ergodic texts; and he cares passionately about the theoretical paradigm he champions. These are no small virtues, and to this extent we all benefit from his engagement with the issues.