Explorations in the Ergodic

Marianne Corrigan and Ash Ogden

As our lives become more networked, people are engaging more and more with structures. But they are not merely inhabiting these structures – they are playing with them. […] Systems only become meaningful as they are inhabited, explored and manipulated by people. In the coming century, what will become important will not be just systems, but human systems (Zimmerman 2009: 27).

In his essay ‘Gaming Literacy’, Eric Zimmerman registers the complex interplay between the organic human subject and the cybernetic machine, which has come to characterise culture in the developed world in the twenty-first century. His argument that individuals are engaging to a greater extent with digital media highlights the multi-faceted merging of the cybernetic and organic self, which has emerged as the social and cultural norm in our contemporary climate. Such culture results in an epistemological duality: a hybridization of identity in which the subject, comprised of the human self and its digital simulacrum, simultaneously inhabit two realms. Such apparently polarised realms, the space beyond the screen and the ‘real’ world, are becoming increasingly more interactive: as Donna Haraway argued: ‘by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs’ (Haraway 150).

How then, have literary texts sought to engage with this cultural shift towards cybernetic subjectivity? Whilst Marianne Corrigan‘s previous article for Alluvium (“Gaming and the Novel”) focused on the ways in which the twenty-first century novel frequently engages on a thematic level with digital culture, this article seeks to specifically examine the ways in which literary texts engage with the participatory element of cybernetic spaces, through attention to the form of what Espen J Aarseth has termed ‘ergodic literature’ (Aarseth 1).

Cyborg Manual

The multi-faceted merging of the cybernetic and organic self: 21st-century digital interactions force us to reconsider cybernetic subjectivity in literary texts 

[Image by runran under a CC BY-SA license]

When evaluating twenty-first century fiction, it is interesting to note that authors such as Jonathan Lethem, Salman Rushdie, Mark Danielewski, Indra Sinha and Haruki Murakami have all produced novels which engage aesthetically and thematically with other virtual worlds, thus probing the malleable boundary which supposedly separates the digital and the organic, as well as registering the spaces in between such binaries. In The Cybergypsies, Sinha registers thematically how the digital cartographies of the virtual world transfer to the fluid aesthetics of the novel:

Sometimes it seems as if all the connections on the net are alive to one another and that information flows through regardless of how you try to dam it up. It finds its own way, leaks along the wires and out onto the airwaves. Information, as would-be hackers never tire of telling us, wants to be free (Sinha 4).

Whilst Sinha’s prose seeks to highlight the digital and inter-connective channels which have come to characterize globalization, in terms of the ergodic what Sinha and Lethem fail to register is the interactive and participatory role of the reader in the ‘experiencing’ or consuming of a novel. Danielewski’s text House of Leaves is an example of what Espen J. Aarseth terms ‘ergodic’ literature, due to the fact that ‘nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text’ (Aarseth 1997: 1). House of Leaves is a complex and intricate arrangement of footnotes, varying text size and font, and non-linear typography, meaning that its rhizomatic aesthetics strongly engage with the digital cartographies of the online world as a result of their hypertextual and intertextual links. Similarly, in accordance with Aarseth’s theories on ergodic literature, and the ‘nontrivial’ effort required by the reader to engage actually in the process of reading the text, the novel maintains significant links with digital media and online gaming as a result of its non-linear and interactive aesthetics.

To refer back to Zimmerman’s argument, then, what is particularly interesting about ergodic forms of textuality is the ways in which they seek to register the living human subject as inhabiting the realm of cybernetic culture in the more ‘conventional’ spaces of the novel or play. Ergodic literature seeks to interrogate the rhizomatic channels of connectivity which unite the seemingly polarised worlds of the digital and the textual, thus raising questions regarding the subject suspended in between the two spaces.


Participatory literature: House of Leaves promotes feedback between the printed copy and the ongoing digital commentary that surrounds it, as well as inspiring numerous expressions of fandom 

[Image by jbhalper under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

How then, have more ‘conventional’ forms of literature sought to engage with this participatory impulse? Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th (1933) is set in a court room and takes the form of a murder trial. The form of the play is significant given that it represents the participatory aspect of the ergodic. On the night of each performance, members of the audience are selected to adopt the role of jury members. In order to inform their decision, the jury debate the information delivered to them through character testimony, which in turn results in their verdict on whether the defendant is guilty or not. Notably, different endings occur in accordance with the opinions and experiences of the jury selected during each respective performance.

Whilst Rand’s play was written in twentieth century, a twenty-first century reading of the text highlights it ergodic and participatory aspects. The manner in which social media networks, such as Twitter, have directly influenced public opinion regarding the supposed culpability of individuals in cases relating to, for example, child sex offences, highlights the role of interactive mass-media in shaping concepts of subjectivity. It is therefore vital, as critics, that we turn our attention towards a critical evaluation of the ways in which literary texts may register the convergence of the ‘real’ and the virtual through forms which characterise the interactive and inter-connective aspects of society in the twenty first century. 

Consequently, the second half of this article seeks to examine in more depth the ways in which twenty-first century fiction has sought to register such issues. Fiction is not only beginning to be presented through digital systems such as Kindles, but also to structurally mimic the participatory aspects of digital media networks and, indeed, video games. House of Leaves features extremely alienating textual layouts as a means of achieving ergodicity: cross-referenced appendices that lead to nowhere, fake-footnotes, and hidden codes that reward the reader for breaking the conventional rhythm of reading.

This aesthetic shift creates a tension in the reader: a convincing and fully-fleshed fictional world requires that the physical aspects of a book fade into the background, the printed matter of words serving as a springboard for the reader’s imaginative construction. House of Leaves actually incentivises the exact opposite of this conventional reading process, asking readers to ‘use the first letter of each word to build subsequent words and phrases’ (Danielewski 619).

This instruction applies to a coded letter penned by the protagonist’s institutionalised mother, Pelafina, found in one of the many appendices of House of Leaves. Yet as readers, we are guided towards applying this acrostic to the text of the main narrative. A hint is provided by a Flagstaff band with an extradiegetic awareness of an earlier version of House of Leaves:

             Apparently they wondered a lot about Johnny Truant. […] Did he at long last      find the woman who would love his ironies? Which shocked the hell out of        me. I mean it takes some pretty impressive back-on-page-117 close-reading to       catch that one (Danieleswki 514).

48:365- 5 And A Half Minute Hallway

A state of hybrid subjectivity: the increasing popularity of videogaming and digital media marks a shift towards a public desire for active participation with media 

[Image by Christine and Eric Mahler under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

The reader flicks back to page 117 and cannot immediately find the reference point. Those, however, who have chosen to follow an earlier footnote and read Pelafina’s letter, are able to apply the acrostic code to ‘a wild ode mentioned at New West hotel over wine infusions, light, lit, lofted on very entertaining moods, yawning in return, open nights, inviting everyone’s song’ exhuming the confirmatory message: ‘A woman who will love my ironies’ (Danielewski 117).

Thus, the reader’s ability to exhaustively explore and navigate a network is rewarded with additional narrative content. The passive rule of Pelafina’s letter is turned into an active tool, for similar hidden acrostics are riddled through House of Leaves; some clearly authored and embedded by Danielewski himself, whilst others are of more dubious authorship. This creates an ergodic awareness within the reader, lifting them out of a passive mode of meaning-apprehension, and into the role of game-player, attempting to make Danielewski’s text submit to an arbitrary game rule.

This practice has been taken up so fanatically that it has countless threads devoted to it on House of Leaves online forum. The forum exists alongside the novel as a digital paratext, that promises to interact with subsequent editions of the novel. As ‘the Editors’ remark of an unreferenced poetic verse in Chapter V, ‘Anyone who can provide legitimate proof of authorship will be credited in future editions. – Ed.’ (Danielewski 45). Alongside the inclusion of numerous ‘reader’s emails,’ House of Leaves promotes feedback between the printed copy and the ongoing digital commentary that surrounds it.

One House of Leaves forum user has decoded ‘A fat fit’ from the first line of Pelafina’s letter dated August 30, 1982, but concedes that ‘most three letter words found this way aren’t deserving of mention, because it’s inevitable that a LOT will show up’ (Katatonic n. pag.) The code however can potentially be validated by a narrative resonance within the letter; ‘I’m told you worked yourself up into quite a fit,’ pitting Danielewski’s intention against the role of coincidence in the text (Danielewski 587). The authorship of these exhumed sentences is, in essence, contested between Danielewski and the novel’s user. The reader performs a scripted action in order to generate new interpretive possibilities from a static text.

What differentiates this approach from late twentieth century reader-response tenets, is that this process is a physical rather than a hermeneutic one. Due to the length of the codes, readers have to physically engage with the systems that they are playing with. As Johnny states, ‘you might try scribbling in a journal, on a napkin, maybe even in the margins of this book’ (Danielewski xxiii). Combined with all of the twisting, turning, and even the need to use a magnifying glass for some sections, interacting with House of Leaves becomes a profoundly physical activity. Since this physical interaction is required to unlock narrative content, it follows that Danielewski has factored room for the reader’s body into his textual structure.

House of Leaves

Mimicking digital media networks? Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves presents alienating textual layouts as a means of achieving ergodicity: cross-referenced appendices that lead to nowhere, fake-footnotes and hidden codes 

[Image by Alan Trotter under a CC BY-NC license]

This is the ‘human system’ of which Zimmerman speaks, and how it comes to be represented in the non-digital medium of print. Systemic game rules govern the reader’s physical interaction with the novel, creating space for the hybrid subjectivity of which Haraway speaks. The user follows prescribed rules (in the case of applying an acrostic or following a footnote) but also uses the system to generate new ludic possibilities. The reader in this contested used/user position is best conceived of as a game-player, for as Zimmerman states in an earlier article, ‘[p]lay is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system’ (Zimmerman 2004: 159). Thus, play is posited as an activity that allows for the reader’s manipulations within an authorial design; creating a hermeneutic framework in which agency is not contested, but co-existent.

Importantly, play conceptualised in this way, is non-medium specific, which helps us to understand the digital as a function rather than a platform. Any pre-twentieth century novel can now be displayed on a screen and rebranded as ‘digital,’ despite being operationally similar to a typical codex book. Novels such as House of Leaves embody the zeitgeist of the digital age far more readily despite their analogue form. In such works, the user’s ability to selectively navigate through a profusion of content is rewarded; a skill which is transferable to the use of search engines and digitised databases.  

The increasing popularity of videogaming and digital media marks a shift away from the ‘passive’ mode of apprehension engendered by television and non-ergodic literature, and towards a public desire for active participation with media. Within the contemporary media environment, the ludic approach engendered by ergodic texts bolsters the reader’s ability to find self-expression in a state of hybrid-subjectivity. By engendering skills that aid the individual in navigating digital environments, the ergodic smoothes over the commonly-perceived rift between the digital and the textual, suggesting that both platforms can reconcile human agency with systemic design.

CITATION: Marianne Corrigan and Ash Ogden, “Explorations in the Ergodic,”Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2013): n. pag. Web. 25March 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.2.01.

Marianne Corrigan is a final year PhD student under the supervision of Dr Nick Bentley at Keele University. Marianne’s research examines globalization, discourses of inter-connectivity and narrative migrancy in the later novels of Salman Rushdie.

Ash Ogden is a postgraduate student in the department of English Studies at Durham University. He is currently in the process of writing a dissertation on interactivity in experimental literature and videogames and is the television editor of The Bubble online magazine.

Works Cited:

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (London: The John Hopins University Press, 1997).

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves (London: Doubleday, 2001).

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

Katatonic, “Codes for Dummies – *Spoilers Galore*.” 3rd May 2005, House of Leaves Forum, <http://www.houseofleaves.com/forum/showthread.php?2985-Codes-for-Dummies-*SPOILERS-GALORE*> [accessed 25 March 2013].

Sinha, Indra. The Cybergypsies (London: Povket Books: 1999).

Zimmerman, Eric (2009). ‘Gaming Literacy, in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, ed. by Bernard Perron and Mark J.P. Wolf (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 23-31.

Zimmerman, Eric (2004). ‘Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline’ in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game ed. By Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 154-164.

Please feel free to comment on this article.

5 Replies to “Explorations in the Ergodic”

  1. Hi Marianne and Ash,

    Thanks for a really interesting article.

    I was curious which Lethem text you refer to in your list? I realise this is not a central part of your argument here, but I guess I am not convinced you can dismiss his work, and maybe some of the others, as not registering "the interactive and participatory role of the reader in the ‘experiencing’ or consuming of a novel." Lethem's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence" precisely traces the fluidity of information (as cultural reference, cultural capital, cultural commons) across media/genre; and in doing so he positions himself as simultaneously author and reader, performing a kind of deconstruction of the boundary between the two. And I wonder if– in terms of connected, fluid thinking– that the "Ecstasy" essay doesn't in part contextualise his novels that reference the digital. Lethem's position in the essay is related to the kind of user/producer model described by new media and gaming critical studies as being engendered through digital media (but that is also discussed–in other ways–by Barthes et al in relation to literature). Which I understood to be part of the model you are invoking here.

    I was also curious what other texts you might include in your analysis– texts that fit your model of functioning digitally in print (if I understood that right)?  And I was wondering what you thought about House of Leaves as a 2000 text– is there a way in which it engages with a particular historical moment of thinking about participatory interaction; does it reflect a particular take on interaction due to the predominant experiences of digital culture at the end of the 20th Century specifically?

    Possibly too many questions; really thought provoking piece! 


    1. In many ways ergodic literature can easily create personal attachment. I believe that this is done in the same way that picking up a complex book as a child creates a sense of compelling mystery of the unknown. This attachment can be formed as you attempt to fill in the gaps using your imagination, or discover the true meaning through increasing your vocabulary. Either way, the increased participation of the reader is likely what creates this attachment. This is of course a result of stimulation in the modern age. Hopefully this noticeable shift in participation will inspire (and has inspired) other media. From literature to video games to streetwear, ergodic ideas are utilized more and more.

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