Call for Comments: Just WTF is Ergodic Literature?

From Wayne: So there’s this idea I’ve been trying to wrap my head around, both as a writer and a scholar. A while back a friend of my posted about his reactions to the Netflix series The OA, and referred to it as an example of ‟ergodic storytelling.” If you’re like me, your reaction right now is ‟Ergodic what, now?”

Cover of Cybertext:Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth

Ergodic literature is a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The term is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning ‟work”, and hodos, meaning ‟path”. The defintion of Ergodic Literature is, ‟nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”

So what does ‟nontrival effort” mean? To stick with literature for a moment, most books fall into the later category of ‟arbitrary turning of pages.” Our eyes scan the words and move on. With this definition, even something as complex as Finnegan’s Wake is nonergodic. One of the books usually referred to as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Cover of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This was marketed as a horror novel, and it’s sort of about a haunted house (wow, is that an oversimplification), that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Characters get lost navigating the setting. The book is structured to reflect that, with notes in the side margins, and footnotes that lead to other pages, and footnotes within footnotes, and places where you need to change the orientation of the physical book itself (and now that I think about it, I have no idea how this would translate to a digital platform).

Choose Your Own Adventure books may be ergodic in that the reader’s choices change the outcome, making the work more participatory. I think a lot of video games fit the idea of ergodic storytelling, particularly open world scenarios. In many ways the entirety of the internet is an exercise in the ergodic experience. The classic ‟going down the rabbit hole” of hyperlinks creates this phenomenon.

Part of what I’m trying to piece together is, and I realize this might not be truly ergodic, is it possible that works become ergodic, even if they weren’t necessarily designed that way? What I mean here is, given the decades long history of specifically Marvel and DC comics and the overlapping narratives by a wide variety of creators, how much nontrivial work is being done by the reader, depending on where they come into the narrative?

Cover of Giant-Size Avengers #1

I don’t know if I’m explaining the idea well here… but, to use the history of Vision and the Scarlet Witch in the comics as an example (since WandaVision is on everyone’s minds), I remember reading a long story arc in the 70s that established their parents were a pair of Golden Age superheroes. That was later retconned to make Magneto their father, and even though that makes more narrative sense, this thing that has become a defining part of their characters has always felt tacked on to me, whereas most people don’t know anything about the first story. This colors my interaction with any narrative told about them now, including the show. The show is explaining everything, which is, in my understanding, nonergodic, but a certain amount of knowledge of twenty-some previous movies certainly helps. It’s a separate continuity from the comics, but my knowledge of them changes my understanding of it. I know lots of people who are now doing research into the comics history to understand the show better. That’s a different level of interaction than “just turning the pages,” as part of the definition goes. Are these just Easter eggs for fanboys, or do they launch a different level of interaction with the text? If so, is that ergodic in some way?

And I have thoughts about the way readers consume any number of other comics, books, movies, video games… everything.

So this may be a little more esoteric than a lot of our shows, with a lot more speculation than resolution, we’re curious of anyone else has encountered this concept, and if you have any thoughts about it. Let us know in the comments.

1 Comment and 4 Webmentions for “Call for Comments: Just WTF is Ergodic Literature?”

  1. I’m inclined to make an argument for ergodic *approaches* to text, so the process of searching out information, stopping and reading intertextual references, reading back to trace foreshadowing, etc are all ergodic approaches that result in deeper and more complex understanding, even with a text that merely requires page turning.

    Also, House of Leaves in a digital platform would just be a standard work of hypertext literature. It’s interesting to consider in the other direction, that it takes a hypertext approach and makes it physical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.