Icky Theory: Metatexts and Ergodic Literature

Posted on 12/08/2011 by


The concept of the meta-text draws from Jenkins’ discussion of fan communities’ interpretation and play within their favourite texts. He says that “fan critics work to resolve gaps… far beyond the information explicitly present and toward the construction of a meta-text that is larger, richer, more complex and interesting than the original series. The meta-text is a collaborative enterprise; its construction effaces the distinction between reader and writer, opening the program to appropriation by its audience.” (Jenkins, 1992, p278)

Metatexts are the discussion of the unsaid of the original text, directly of it instead of their reflection on it (as with a paratext). Much like an online paratext, these meta-texts create a dynamic, interpretative network of empowered (author-like) readers. Hellekson talks specifically about fan metatexts, texts about their reading performance:

To engage [with the original text] is to click, read, comment, write, make up a song and sing it; to hotlink, to create a video, to be invited to move on, to come over here or go over there—to become part of a larger metatext… The metatext thus created has something to say, sometimes critical things, about the media source, but for those of us who engage in it, it has even more to say about ourselves. (Hellekson 2009, p 114)

Interestingly, such fan-product, fan-gifts as she specifies, but also derivative texts, have been difficult to monetise. However, they do often constitute large, and loyal networks of the audience.

More recently, fan fiction writes out the metatext of the original seed text, enlarging away from it instead of being a paratext coming in around it.

In a sense, paratexts and metatexts form an ecology of sources related to the original, as both secondary and primary sources, respectively.

Paratexts as a secondary source is of course a direct relationship, however, the metatext as primary source does rely on a decentralisation of authorial authority for the communal.

The particular distinction I make between Gray’s broader view of paratexts and the theory of metatexts, are that paratexts are those items that can be ‘linked’ out toward. This borrows from an (admittedly problematic) view of published v non-published texts; paratexts presented as about the core text—whether intentionally as in a review of it, or literally para-textually, as would be academic theory applied to it.

‘Publication’ takes on a different meaning here, the test of ‘publication’ must be in the rigor the piece can withstand as a text by itself—not necessarily literally published, but capable of its own, resilient re-readings.

Metatexts, however, fit within and permeate through the seed text. Of course, fascinating, are those texts which may shift between the two; paratexts folded into broader fan metanarratives; metatexts which ‘earn’ their own resilient publication. Both para- and meta-texts then describe the living ecology of dynamic etexts by showing the changing external, intertextual texts and the growing, internal interpretations.

While both para- and meta-texts have always paralleled literature, the ‘hypertextualised archive’ (Dalgaard 2001) of the internet allows them to be read in an embedded and immediate, nonlinear form.

This is especially true regarding paratexts, as any text may be directly linked to by readers, thus informing the seed as a newly subsidiary work, regardless of its original position. However, metatexts too, can be read directly within and interspersed with the seed. Together these texts, and the decisions of which to engage with alongside the seed, push readers into a writerly literature (Barthes 1974), requiring the creation of an ergodic work. Ergodic literature is one where “… 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.” (Aarseth 1997, p1-2)

This ergodic literature demands engagement, it creates the very performative text itself. These studies provide framework theories to describe active and dynamic textual engagement by readers. In particular, the fact that readers can communicate their choice and interpretation of texts as an embodied work within the original out to other readers, and in turn will have their own reading re-read and presented to others as an embeddable text. That creates a possible value emergent from how the original text is actively being used, rather than anything so digitally replicable as any of the static texts themselves.

Posted in: Icky Theory, Paul