e-Lit Resource
Cybertext Theory: What an English Professor Should Know Before Trying

Weighing into the debate started with Nick Montfort’s “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star” (www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/cyberdebates), a review of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997), Eskelinen’s ebr essay champions cybertext theory over hypertext theory. “In contrast to the dead ends of hypertext theory and its posthuman derivatives,” Eskelinen writes, “cybertext theory address the unique dual materiality of cybernetic sign production and gives us an accurate and heuristic description of how the textual medium works.”

Eskelinen is candid in his approach to hypertext, not shy to address the failings and misreadings of such prominent theorists as Landow, Douglas, and Hayles. Eskelinen notes that there are “two main reasons why hypertext theory can neither defend the autonomy of ergodic literature nor exercise much authority in studying it.” Firstly, he sees a level of hype to hypertext, a hype directly connected to the “print-like qualities: permanent signifiers and intransient time” of electronic literature. (Interestingly enough, Montfort discusses how Aarseth “names his own category ‘cybertext’ - as if the ‘cyber’ prefix were somehow less tainted by hype,” when discussing semantics and the question of interactivity.) Eskelinen’s second issue with hypertext is its supposed lack of theory, its rather quick ascent and reliance on interpretations of post-structuralism, that for Eskelinen, it never got quite right: “In retrospect this means hypertext theory will not be effective in defending that field because it is dependent upon its grave misreading and simplifications of the theories it borrowed.” Eskelinen sees hypertext as being another subset in the larger corpus of works defined under Aarseth’s moniker cybertext.

It is not difficult to see how the cybertextual debate became so contested on ebr. Eskelinen’s essay illustrates that collaborative, organic nature of a rapidly developing field, where terms like "posthuman," "hypertext," and "cybertext" emerge rather quickly, gain currency, and enter into critical discussions. As it is listed as a riposte to Nick Montfort, and published parallel to a number of other ripostes by Matt Kirschenbaum (2001), Marjorie C. Luesebrink (2001), and Jim Rosenberg (2003), such critical writing also affirms the need for critical tools and institutions (like ebr) which can open these terms to dialogue. For instance, Katherine Hayles adds to the discussion with her riposte “What Cybertext Theory Can’t Do” (www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/ecumenical), hypertextually linked to Nick Montfort’s essay, but also linked to Eskelinen’s in Hayles’ writing: “I didn’t want to write this riposte to Markku Eskelinen. . .but I was provoked into it.” For critics seeking to understand the history the field of electronic literature, such documents reveal the larger historical and philosophical processes at work in scholarship. Given that hypertext continues to be relevant as one mode of electronic literary practice in a growing field, such debates highlight not only the need for a vibrant critical culture, but for scholarly venues like the ebr that can encourage such open-ended scholarship.

More from Eskelinen on ebr:

“Towards Computer Game Studies”

“Markku Eskelinen’s response: A Riposte to Henry Jenkins”

“Markku Eskelinen’s response to Julian Raul Kuchlich”