Cybertext Poetics: The Critical Landscape of New Media Literary Theory
by Markku Eskelinen
Continuum Books, London & New York, 2012
462 pp. Trade, $130.00; paper, $ 39.95
ISBN: 9781441124388; ISBN: 9781441107459.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
A prominent representative of ludology, the academic study of games, Markku Eskelinen has gathered in this impressively fat book (with frequently inserted recapitulative figures, but totally deprived of any other illustration) his essential thinking on the subject. However, one should prevent the reader from the very start that the scope of Eskelinen's book is strictly formal and theoretical: what he intends to establish is a general framework for the description and analysis of all texts that can be produced and read today. More specifically, his ambition is to list the various dimensions that can be distinguished in a literary text, whatever form such a text may take, and to study the combinatory principles that rule their use.
The starting point of this research is twofold. First there is the observation that the countless media transformations of the last decades have given birth to an almost infinite number of new works and new text types that can no longer be accounted for within the framework of traditional, i.e. print-based literary analysis. The case of games, which Eskelinen rightly considers an example of such a new literary form, introduces features that are so different from what can be reasonably conceptualized in classic terms that literary theory can only either ignore these new forms or miss their qualities and interest by identifying them as exceptions, anti-narrative constructs, or idiosyncratic items that don't have any place in any taxonomy, whatsoever. Issues and aspects such as simulation (versus narrative) or the multi-layeredness of time and space (not just as parameters of fictional representations, but as basic features of textual production and reception) play here, of course, an essential role. Second, and this is no longer an observation but a theoretical claim, there is the conviction that the solution to the above mentioned problem is not to split the field of literary studies in two subfields: print culture on the one hand and digital-born culture on the other hand. Although this is still the default option of most literary scholars, who most of the times defend the incompatibility between print modus and digital modus, Eskelinen takes a different, much more homogenizing stance. For him, both print and digital-born texts should be studied with the help of the same (but expanded) conceptual and analytical devices, and his whole book is an (convincing) attempt to demonstrate the usefulness, if not the necessity of this overall approach. The refusal to draw a strong line between both domains does not imply, however, that Eskelinen is obsessed with creating a new general and all-encompassing theory. His goal, which is both more modest and more ambitious, has to do with the elaboration of a toolkit, i.e. of a list of aspects and dimensions as well as a certain number of proposals and hypotheses concerning their concrete use. Interpretation of specific works is something that falls out of the scope of this book, which must be read as what it is: a theoretical inquiry into the parameters of what we mean by a literary text today (and even within this field Eskelinen is mainly concerned with narrative literary texts).
The study of narrative is boundless and the exceptional dynamics of the field makes that it has become very difficult to keep a reasonable overview of everything that is being done, undone and redone, often simultaneously. The first impression that one takes from Eskelinen's book is that the author has an extremely clear view of his material. Not only does he know very well the basic and less basic discussions on most key aspects of (formal) narratology, he also succeeds in establishing always a lucid hierarchy between authors and theories he considers essential for the construction of his own model and authors and theories he discusses, mainly in order to test and challenge the consistency of his proposals. Throughout the book, and given the author's strong belief that it has no sense to develop digital-born literature as an autonomous field, Eskelinen relies on two major references: Gérard Genette (and to a lesser extent Gerald Prince) as far as classic narratology is concerned, and Espen Aarseth as far as cybertextuality is concerned. The foregrounding of Genette, a classic structuralist whose work has often been criticized as too rigid and narrow by representatives of post-classical narratology (a less formalist, more culturally and contextually oriented update of formalist narratology), comes as a big surprise. Very rapidly, however, Eskelinen manages to convince his reader that the general framework outlined by Genette is actually more open and flexible than that of most post-classic narratologists (whose ideas are often discussed in a polemical way), so that the merger with unforeseen categories and realizations is easier in his case than in the case of those post-classic narratologists whose models are, according to Eskelinen, less inspiring when it comes to open print-based theory to newer forms of textual thinking. Eskelinen's second major reference is Aarseth's cybertext theory on "ergodic" (or if one prefers: interactive) literature, as being developed since the mid-nineties, which remains for him the best possible way to understand what new textual practices such as, for instance, hypertext fiction or games, can bring to our definition of text and narrative.
Next to the merger of Genette and Aarseth, the plea for a unified theoretical approach is undoubtedly a fine achievement of this publication. The implementation in textual theory of many new concepts and insights made possible by experiments or discoveries in digital literature and games is generally stimulating, although not always easy to read, for Eskelinen's concern with typologies and their combinatorics confronts the reader with an endless and sometimes quite boring number of criteria, aspects, parameters, dimensions, levels and all their combinatory rules. The relevance of all these lists can of course only be made "acceptable" by the analysis of concrete and specific works, but the purely theoretical program of Cybertext Poetics explicitly refrains from doing so. Moreover, Eskelinen proposes a convincing and healthy discussion of the misunderstandings and prejudices that surround the notion of ludology, the new discipline that is often seen as an anti-narrative or anti-literary methodology and theory. What Eskelinen clearly shows is that this debate is a false quarrel: narratologists do not have to fear ludologists, and ludologists should not see narratologists as their institutional adversaries. Both should work towards the elaboration of a broader conceptualization of what a text is and how narrative can be thought of in a technologically enhanced society. What is missing in Eskelinen's book, however, is a discussion between the positions of ludology and those of "unnatural narratology", a recent subfield within post-classic narratology that "analyzes and theorizes the aspects of fictional narratives that transcend or violate the boundaries of conventional realism. It affirms the distinctive nature of fiction, identifies nonmimetic aspects of ostensibly realistic texts, and gravitates toward unusual and experimental works that reject the conventions of mimetic and natural narrative" (cf. Dictionary of Unnatural Narratology: (http://nordisk.au.dk/forskning/forskningscentre/nrl/undictionary/). From an institutional point of view, this absence is a pity, and one can only hope that the publication of this book will reopen this crucial debate.