Interactivity in Digital Literature

‘Interactivity’ is a highly problematic term in regard to literature, since all literature, after all, is interactive – a fact which was systematically formulated by Roman Ingarden already in thirties in his work Das Literarische Kunstwerk (1960). This idea was further developed, especially, in reception aesthetics and reader-response studies; these research practices take it as their starting point that the reader is an active participant in the literary signification process. There are several kinds of interactivity, and the difference between the interactivity of conventional literature and that of digital literature was, for the first time, clearly expressed by Espen Aarseth, who decribes four categories of reader(/user) functions: interpretation, navigation, configuration, and writing.

Interpretation is an inseparable part of all reading. When reading hypertext, one has to, in addition to interpretation, actively navigate her way through the net of hypertextual paths. Furthermore, the reader/user may be allowed to configure the text, for example, add her own links to the hypertext. Configuration, thus, means reforming the text within certain limits. The last user function is writing, that is, the user is allowed to participate in the writing of the text – and writing may also be programming. It is a commonplace in hypertext theory to claim that because of interactivity, the ”reader becomes an author” – this is, however, not accurate but only in those texts which offer their readers the writing function (in other texts the claim can be accepted only in some metaphorical sense), and such texts are very rare so far.

In a convincing way Aarseth also shows how the distinction between print and digital texts is, actually, quite ineffective. In many cases a certain print text may be much closer to some digital texts, than to other print texts, and vice versa. Aarseth, then, rather speaks of cybertextuality, which he defines as a perspective on all texts, independently of their medium: if a text makes use of configurative and writing functions, then it clearly is a cybertext – on the other hand, if a digital text does not use any other user functions than interpretation, then it does not, in any significant way, differ from traditional texts. This is a healthy notion, and mostly acceptable, but in practice the difference between print and digital texts may be more significant than Aarseth claims.

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September 27, 2010. Uncategorized.

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