Communication Institute for Online Scholarship
Communication Institute for Online
Scholarship Continous online service and innovation
since 1986
Site index
 
ComAbstracts Visual Communication Concept Explorer Tables of Contents Electronic Journal of Communication ComVista

EJC/REC, Vol. 14 Numbers 1 and 2
EJC logo
The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 14 Numbers 1 and 2, 2004

 

AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE TRIVIAL

 

A. Braxton Soderman

California Institute of the Arts

 

 Abstract: Upon discovering Espen Aarseth’s use of the term “nontrivial effort,” marking the significant work needed to traverse a cybertext, my thoughts turn toward the nontrivial and trivial: What do these words mean? What makes something – an object, an event, an action – nontrivial or significant? How do trivial things influence our lives? Instead of answering these questions in a traditional academic essay, I attempt a performative journey toward the trivial itself, recording the trivial moments that guide my thinking and ignite my thoughts into action. The resulting travels uncover a paradox beneath the movement from the trivial to the nontrivial and back again – an oscillation between something that is both meaningless and yet powerfully significant. In the end I am led to view this same oscillation within the navigation of cybertexts. When Aarseth claims that cybertexts require nontrivial effort in their navigation, we can also locate the trivial operating within the choices of the user, those slight decisions made at cybertextual crossroads. It is a significant moment when readers (or users) inhabit a textual world and begin to explore its structure, yet simultaneously this moment announces the arrival of the trivial and the touch of Fate it carries.              

Often during my childhood, on Thanksgiving or Easter or New Year’s, on some holiday when the family all gathered, the adults would unfold the Trivial Pursuit game board, divvy up the teams and choose their favorite colored pie. The ritual occurred once dinner had been eaten and when conversation had systematically covered the usual catching-up, the sports events on the tube, and perhaps a short political free-for-all. I always insisted on joining a team even though the adults quickly forgot me or put me to bed, my naïve ears listening and filling with assorted curiosities, with unknown names of people and places and things. Yet even when ignored I would sit patiently and await each question, my fingers crossed in hopes that I would know the answer and impress the adults. If only Google had arrived ten years earlier! I could have had my laptop waiting in the other room, surreptitiously leaving the kitchen table of chattering adults and returning with an answer to a question that stumped them all: what influential technology was created in 1969 and initially funded by U.S. Department of Defense? I probably would have found the word ARPANET though the answer on the card would have read “The Internet.”

In Pursuit of the Trivial

I have been intrigued with the trivial ever since I read Espen Aarseth’s book Cybertext where he famously invokes a distinction between ergodic and nonergodic literature:

 

In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must 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 (1-2).

In order to understand Aarseth’s concepts of ergodic and nonergodic literature, one must inquire into the meaning of the trivial and nontrivial in relation to the effort needed to traverse a text by its reader. Indeed theorists have already turned their attention toward the meaning of these “trivial” concepts. Writing on Aarseth’s idea of cybertext Markku Eskelinen writes, “I have to admit that when teaching cybertext theory nowadays in Finland, the hardest part is always to convince students that navigation is non-trivial,” that is, that the navigation of the text requires the reader to do more than simply read the words before them and flip an occasional page. Yet, why is “nontrivial navigation” the hardest part to understand? Shouldn’t the nontrivial be as easy to understand as the trivial, just its negation: if the trivial invokes a simple nothing, a trifle, something so negligible, so insignificant, that it asks of no attention, then would the nontrivial refer to something, if not terribly important, at least significant, of value and worthy of attention? Yet, simply by stating that nontrivial effort means significant effort does not explain what exactly is significant about the navigational work of the user. One still must explain the significance of the reader’s effort. This is the hard part. Recently I attempted to define cybertext and nontrivial effort to a suspect professor. She asked, “But what do you mean by nontrivial effort?” I stammered and glanced about the other askance faces in the room, flip-flopped through a diatribe on interface, interactivity and the clicking of links until I abruptly crashed into the tautological, “Nontrivial, it means, you know, not trivial.” She wasn’t impressed, and so after class I headed off to the library and launched into a cursory search for the meaning of the term “trivial.” [1]

Searching the library’s database for “trivial” turned up zilch, so I looked instead on under the subject category of trivia. I uncovered two reference books, Just Curious, Jeeves and The Trivia Encyclopedia – side-by-side on the shelf when I found them. I first examined the Just Curious book and discovered that Jeeves is in reality a search engine at ask.com; he’s the fictional, though fact-finding, internet butler (or botler) who answers questions with a natural language processing engine. Thus one types in questions like, “What is the largest library in the world?” and hopes that the search engine will point in the right direction. In the introduction to Just Curious, Jeeves – a collection of a thousand and one curious questions asked online – it reads, “Jeeves receives nearly 3,300 questions a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – or 55 questions a second. In other words, each day Jeeves delivers over 4 million answers!” (Barrett and Mingo). Impressive tidbit, I thought: Jeeves stands at quite a crossroads of knowledge. Naturally my next calling was cyber.

My dearest Jeeves, a quaint, portly man, balding and suited, welcomed me from his screened abode, smirking in that knowing kind of way and extending his hand as if to say, “Please, come in, may I take your coat? What can I do for you this fine evening?” “Well that’s very kind of you Jeeves, thank you. I believe I do have a pittance of a favor to ask,” and I proceeded to type within the question box, “What is the trivial?” Jeeves immediately disappeared as I clicked the carriage and returned with an extensive list of websites. I spent the next hour churning through pages about Trivial Pursuit and sports trivia and movie trivia and TFTP – Trivial File Transfer Protocol – ending up at trivial.com, which was another search engine, though of no importance, hardly approaching the sophistication of ask.com. Finding nothing at trivial.com that jostled my interest I paused for a moment and picked up the second book that I had uncovered, The Trivia Encyclopedia – a medium sized volume of insignificant facts. Reading the introduction from the author/compiler I came across these two sentences: “The sources for a book like this are endless, which is as it should be. Trivia is everywhere” (Worth, 1). True, trivia obtains its insignificance from the very fact that it is everywhere – commonplace. I flipped to the word “trivia” in the alphabetical listing of reference headings, thinking that the answer to my question – What is the trivial? – might be located within this volume itself. Not so. Finding nothing, I read a few random entries from The Trivia Encyclopedia and then sat staring at the surrounding stacks of books and periodicals, this massive archive of fact and fiction. “Trivia is everywhere,” I thought as I grabbed my laptop and left the library.

That night, after my first search for the trivial, I happened upon a quiz show on TV called The Chamber. It was a show in the tradition of “So You Want to be a Millionaire?” though with a distinct slant. In the initial moments of the program two participants challenged each other in a strange game where the host asked them, “Name the top ten car rental agencies in 2001,” and then “What are the names of Major League Baseball teams?” The contestants battled back and forth with answers until one of them faltered. The winner of this silly quiz-off entered “The Chamber,” a sealed machine where she was strapped into a spinning wheel of fortune and subjected to hurricane force winds and Death Valley temperatures; erstwhile she attempted to answer questions supplied by the host, gaining money with each successful response. “Who raced against the hare in Aesop’s famous fable?” The host would occasionally break in and ask how she was doing, what it was like inside “The Chamber” and if she wanted to stop. “What TV show did Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Steve Martin all frequent?” The participant was hooked up to a bio-monitor that would measure her levels of stress; if the indicators pushed into the caution zone “The Chamber” would shut down and the “game” would end. “What came first, CDs or ATMs?” True, the questions asked by the host were unbelievably trivial, but try answering them in temperatures above 120 degrees, in winds around 80 mph, upside-down with steam blowing in your face. Throughout the melodrama and fabricated risk, the simulation of punishment and abuse, I was intrigued by the stupidity of the questions coupled with the spectacle of the danger: since the questions were empty the show had to surround the trivial in a mise en scene of crisis. Watching this show taught me that trivia, in all its seeming unimportance, is surrounded by something intriguing, something that we desire, something that makes us watch these shows, that makes us play a game like Trivial Pursuit again and again. Yet, when this unidentified aspect goes missing, as in the case of The Chamber, the absence must be filled by snazzy ploys that distract our attention: the aura surrounding the trivia questions is replaced by bells and whistles. But what was missing, what was this emptiness that needed to be filled by the carnivalesque contraption of “The Chamber?” (Indeed, what is it that draws us to trivia?). Actually what went missing was exactly what the Chamber displayed in a hokey Hollywood spectacle: a sense of danger, of peril, of risk, indeed, of jeopardy inherent in the trivial itself.

Jeopardy, the longest running trivia show on TV, still contains a nominal residue of danger or risk (even if the danger consists of losing money that was never the contestant’s in the first place). “Jeopardy” means the danger of being accused of a crime, of being exposed to loss, of being judged. The word itself stems from the Old French jeu parti or even chance. Trivia questions, and the triviality within them, harbor a connection to this even chance, of being judged and placed in peril of judgement. Since the questions on a show like The Chamber were so depleted of significance the peril had to be displaced as a great mechanical façade. The lesson we take from The Chamber is that trivia and the trivial are not insignificant after all; they carry an aura of peril, of chance that swings well or poor. We are taught to think of trivia as useless knowledge or meaningless information, but once we begin to notice trivial things we begin to notice an import and significance that we have always overlooked.

Trivia, A Category of Trivial (No)things

I returned to the library the next day to look over the Jeeves book and the Encyclopedia of Trivia once again. Since I had forgotten their call numbers I re-performed a database search for “trivia” – this time, purely by accident, under the “title” heading and not the “subject” category. Because of this nuance the computer located another book, a small tome by Logan Pearsall Smith entitled All Trivia: Trivia, More Trivia, Afterthoughts and Last Words. I immediately leapt toward the shelves in search of my new discovery. Smith’s book, tiny in size, voluptuous in thought, contains aphorisms attentive to the trivial thoughts of the day to day – thoughts of a chair, a Poplar in Sussex, a whisper, a spider – yet always these little things erupt into significance, spiders become human souls, whispers become more important than what is openly said, certain trees become entire worlds that we have missed. In the introduction, written by Gore Vidal, I came across this simple sentence, “Trivia is a whole library in miniature” (xix-xx). Immediately I wondered how trivia, which by definition locates a category of unimportant nothings, could be an entire library in miniature, an entire storehouse of collected knowledge? Smith writes:

Things to Write

What things there are to write, if one could only write them! My mind is full of gleaming thoughts; gay moods and mysterious, moth-like meditations hover in my imagination, fanning their painted wings. They would make my fortune if I could catch them, but always the rarest, those freaked with azure and the deepest crimson, flutter away beyond my reach.

 

The ever-baffled chase of these filmy nothings often seems, for one of sober years in a sad world, a trifling occupation. But have I not read of the great Kings of Persia who used to ride out to hawk for butterflies, nor deemed this pastime beneath their royal dignity? (131).

Smith’s notion of trivia is unconnected to our contemporary game or pastime of questions, quizzes, etc.. Rather, Smith’s aphorism marks a discovery of a new category of being(s) – a category of “filmy nothings,” of “moth-like meditations” so delicate and ephemeral that they flit through consciousness as if through the interstices of our mental breaths. These airy butterflies are so timid that even our thoughts scare them into hiding. They are a category of simple (no)things: fireflies that constantly flicker between is and was, was and is, trivial (no)things that forever remain just around the bend, that are there only until we go looking for them. Yet, these “filmy nothings” influence us, jostle us, and send us into chase. Indeed, Smith pursues these trifles with his aphoristic inscriptions, though when he’s thought to have cornered them, tricked them into an inky cage, they’ve already gone beyond, vanished between the jailbars of signification and the spaces of his prose. The spider and its web for a moment enlarge into the human soul and its fragile mind, then swiftly shrink as Smith’s thoughts flit toward other things, as we realize that such a delicate metaphor cannot uphold the weight of its claim. In another aphorism, Smith pauses under a tree, taking respite from the wind; when the clouds break the stars become the hearth of his princely thoughts, a moment of significance, but we know that soon Smith must turn toward home, the clouds of his thoughts once again shrouding the stars.    

“What things there are to write, if one could only write them!" Does not Smith get his pen upon these things? Does he not approach this layer of whispering being(s) by noticing the realm of the trivial? He does and he doesn’t. He can and he cannot. Trivia and the trivial are the final hideout of knowledge, the hobbit-shire that desires to escape the microscopic, critical gaze of the world. The trivial contains knowledge, but knowledge shed of meaning. It pleads, “Don’t conceptualize me for I only exist when I am not a concept!” When we attempt to pinpoint a more profound significance in trivia and the trivial we risk losing the very triviality that first drew our attention – the charm of the spider and its web lost in its becoming nontrivial, the whole soul and mind of man. Even the deconstructive eye well versed in the examination of critical minutiae could not locate Smith’s trivia, for as the theoretical eye turns toward those “little nothings” their trivial aspects have already traveled elsewhere, evaporated, leaving nothing to decompose and thus nothing to reassemble. But then the question arises, how to write about trivial things, how to write about the trivial itself when it disappears when we go looking for it? Perhaps the problem lies in “looking for it”? Perhaps the significance of trivia and the trivial arrive unannounced, and we must attune ourselves to its passing? The butterfly lies just beyond our reach, but instead of chasing it with our theoretical nets, let us wait for the wind to blow it within our reach.

 

Writing Trivial Theories

Armed with a good search engine and a digital library, any college dropout can pass for a learned scholar, quoting the classics without having read any of them.

                                                - Espen Aarseth from Cybertext

 

Now Laius – so at least report affirmed –
Was murdered on a day by highwaymen,
No natives, at a spot where three roads meet.

                                                            - Sophocles from Oedipus Rex

 

It was Smith who first recognized the importance of trivia. Indeed, he discovered trivia: according to the OED Smith coined the word in 1902. It was as if he needed a word that would momentarily capture the “filmy nothings” in his thoughts; he needed a way to describe the slight musings that populated his thinking, not grand overarching totalities or systematic arguments that compose a larger whole, but shy and quiet jewels that vibrated with an energy that few have the patience sense. Vidal wrote that, “Trivia is a whole library in miniature,” and surely he played upon the doubling of this italics: Trivia as the title of Smith’s book and Trivia as a miniature realm of knowledge and insight. It was not just Smith’s book that contained droplets of importance, but the category of tiny (no)things that Smith discovered, those trivial (no)things that temporarily shelter the whisper of knowledge and taxi our thoughts to things and back from things to thoughts again. Paradox nestles here: this italicizing draws our attention to what, by definition, is not meant to attract attention; the italics highlights what can only be glimpsed, what can only be momentarily felt, as if it makes itself known only in its passing. Smith writes here, here in the passing moment between thoughts: betwixt when the trivial reveals its significance and when this significance slips away. It is this fleeting moment – the trivial moment – that Smith discovers as both the “source of his thoughts” and the “fate that beckons,” that calls, his life. He writes:

The Coming of Fate

When I seek out the sources of my thoughts, I find they had their beginnings in fragile Chance; were born of little moments that shine for me curiously in the past. Slight the impulse that made me take this turning at the crossroads, trivial and fortuitous the meeting, and light as a gossamer the thread that first knit me to my friend. These are full of wonder; more mysterious are the moments that must have brushed me evanescently with their wings and passed me by: when Fate beckoned and I did not see it, what new Life trembled for a second on the threshold; but the word was not spoken, the hand was not held out, and the Might-have-been shivered and vanished, dim as a dream, into the waste realms of non-existence.

So I never lose a sense of the whimsical and perilous charm of daily life, with its meetings and words and accidents. Why, today, perhaps, or next week, I may hear a voice, and packing up my Gladstone bag, follow it to the ends of the world (6).

This aphorism struck me the first time I read it; it is the only section I remember where he uses the word trivial. “Trivial and fortuitous the meeting,” was indeed the way I came to know Smith’s book: if my teacher had been satisfied with my explanation of the nontrivial, if I hadn’t looked up “trivia” under the heading of “title” instead of “subject,” I probably would have never found Smith’s book. The coming of fate is indeed within the trivia of our days – a search through the library or the internet, a flip through the channels on the TV, a professor unsatisfied with an answer to a simple question. At the crossroads we open ourselves to the commonplace, and our lives, if not our worlds, are forever changed. These trifling (no)things carry the touch of chance and the “perilous charm of daily life.” The winds of fate blow at the crossroads of life where we are constantly on trial, in “whimsical” jeopardy though we rarely sense it.

 

It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations.

- Thoreau, Walden

It is not by chance that Smith’s aphorism, “The Coming of Fate,” conjoins the trivial and the crossroads. In the introduction to Trivia Vidal writes, “Logan devoted his life to getting his own sentences right” (xvi); thus Smith certainly knew that the trivial was derived from the trivialis of the trivium. That is, trivia and the trivial emerge from the trifles spoken at the crossroads of three via or ways (trivium, an intersection of three roads). At the crossroads we often meet others by chance and talk of nothing – the weather, our day, commonplaces of simple and unimportant conversation. Recall that Fred Worth writes in the introduction to The Trivia Encyclopedia that, “Trivia is everywhere.” The trivial resides everywhere, and is spoken at the trivium, at the crossroads, where the everywhere coalesces into a moment of passing knowledge, into an exchange of information however trifling it might be. (Trivia, as a cultural game of Q&A, only emerges once a society has criss-crossed itself so that information has disseminated amongst its participants; it emerges in the 20th century once every “where” is everywhere. Hence radio and television become singular manifestations of the crossroads of an entire culture/world and quiz shows follow close behind). [2] Indeed, we can view the Internet as a massive virtual crossroads where information – the cybernetic song of our epoch – circulates among its inhabitants. The brilliance of Smith’s trivia is that he opens a thinking (or feeling) of the trivial’s call; he attunes himself to the subtle and mystical powers of the trivial, which before him had been only the trifles of forgotten conversation or moments that had fleeted in and out of consciousness with never a thought supplied to their thinking. In these moments Smith discovered the crossroads of life upon which we always travel and the Fate that is never far from the choices we make. In Smith’s world it is the trivial things that carry our lives though we often fail to notice.

It is at these crossroads, at the trivium, where we place ourselves in jeopardy, where danger can approach, where we find ourselves in peril, or risk going where we haven’t gone before. Indeed, it was at the intersection of three roads where Oedipus slew his own father, and though he did not see it, fate rustled in the shrubs. From one road came Oedipus and from another his father, and thus the perilous moment emerged; the trial began with even chance (jeu parti). Yet we must recall the third road that joined the fray: it was by this unsuspected way that fate both approached, and with its work completed, escaped. Fate always arrives on this third road to decide an even chance.

The trivial is what “trembles for a second on the threshold.” It is the coming of fate by way of the third, the way that cuts between, that touches the middle where the two meet, viamedia, the middle-way. [3] This is the way of the trivial: it carries fate and escapes between without being noticed. It exists between being and non-being, always becoming other, becoming nontrivial when it is noticed, becoming trivial once it is forgotten. Perhaps the trivial is like the knowledge we have of the wind: we know what it is when it touches us. We know when the breeze begins to blow: we feel it. In my pursuit of the trivial I am not after an overarching theory of the trivial, but a trivial theory, a theory that the wind could blow away but also that I can feel. Long ago theory meant “to look at.”  Thus, I am after a theory that looks with a glance and not a stare – a “glance” that touches briefly. What would a theory be that briefly touches as it looks, that feels as it thinks? I am weary of turning the critical gaze – the God’s Eye as Donna Haraway calls it – upon the trivial, frightened that such a vision would see too much, would glimpse too much of its secret and thus lose its mystery. I suggest that it is not so much in turning our attention to the trivial as attuning ourselves to its passing, to the significance that dances on the periphery of our musings. The task of the writer who pursues the trivial (Smith being exemplary) is not to re-present the world but to feel the quick touch of presence, translating the fleeting swell of perception and materiality that envelops us, the nuance of conversation, of experience, of words and things; it is not so much to signify as to place oneself in the throb of significance that offers a flashing of fate as it disappears before our words can detain it, isolate it, etc. If one wishes to write trivial theories one must open him- or herself to the crossroads where information is disseminated, feeling the choices we have, realizing the “perilous charm of daily life” that can send us this way and that. [4] John Cage once had his students pick books at random from the library and compose an essay from the materials that they had gathered: they had to open themselves to the possibility that circulates within the throng of the crossroads of knowledge. Fate lives here, at the crossroads, and we must not be afraid to follow the slightest of thoughts, those “slight impulses” that make us click one link, choose one book, examine one word, watch one TV show instead of another. In the moment of this choice the trivial casts its spell.

Afterthoughts, Cybertext Theory and the Trivial 

It might seem an afterthought to return to cybertext and Espen Aarseth’s use of the terms “trivial” and “nontrivial,” but if we have learned anything from Smith it is that these afterthoughts are what guide us in new directions. Aarseth’s use of “trivial” and “nontrivial” initially spurred my thoughts in directions that were unintended by its original use. I hope that the previous sections follow the cadence of these thoughts. Upon unfolding a sense of the trivial I am tempted to read this thinking back into the cybertextual realm, for cybertext offers a glimpse into a literary practice that announces a resurgence of the trivial and its companions – jeopardy, peril and fate – within the act of textual navigation that Aarseth terms nontrivial. Initially the question that spurred my “trivial peregrinations” concerned the definition of nontrivial effort in the navigation of cybertexts: what was significant about this navigation?

Markku Eskelinen mentioned that explaining nontrivial effort to students was often the hardest part of teaching cybertext theory. Why? First of all Aarseth’s use of the terms trivial and nontrivial seems trivial itself: he never defines his term “nontrivial” with any rigor, and the term “trivial” is splattered throughout the book in various contexts – in reference to the effort involved in traversing a text, to the material differences between a text and the sound generated from reading it out-loud, to the distinction between a play script and its divergent performances, etc.. His use of “trivial” is by and far colloquial, not conceptual. Indeed, the terms “trivial” and “nontrivial” do not even appear in the index (though nonlinearity and even nonnarrative do). [5] This lack of definition concerning the concepts of “trivial” and “nontrivial” reveals that they were never supposed to act as key terms in Aarseth’s schematic. Because of this looseness the word “nontrivial” becomes problematic. No wonder students have a hard time grasping why cybertextual navigation is nontrivial. Users of cybertexts find the idea of nontrivial effort hard to swallow because often the effort needed to traverse cybertexts doesn’t seem more essential, difficult or significant than the trivial flipping of pages. For example, one might ask how shuffling a deck of cards in Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 is more than a trivial action? Or how about clicking this link instead of that one, seems like an electronic version of turning the page? Or the trivial back and forth of footnotes in Nabakov’s Pale Fire?

Let’s give this simplicity a little more weight: though he never explicitly states this, I believe that Aarseth uses nontrivial and trivial according to their mathematical definitions. In mathematics the trivial indicates an absence of interest, a zero remainder. For example, if something can be said of every particular in a set then that something is trivial; it means nothing, it does not further our knowledge because of its commonality. The nontrivial thus indicates significance, a divergence from the common attributes of a set. Thus, trivial effort to read a text – such as the simple movement of the eyes and flipping of the page – means that for a vast majority of texts the work needed to navigate its medium is insignificant; that is, in a set of texts such a modicum of effort is identical to each member of the set – the differences between them are reduced to zero. Nontrivial effort in the traversal of cybertexts – throwing the yarrow sticks for a reading of the I Ching, exploring a world and solving puzzles in the graphic, interactive fiction Myst, the shuffling of cards in Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta – means that for these texts the work needed to traverse their structures is significant and meaningful to the structure and interpretation of the texts; that is, in a set of texts the effort needed to traverse texts such as the I Ching or Myst is not identical to each member of the set, the differences between them cannot be reduced to zero. Such is Aarseth’s category of ergodic literature (or cybertexts) where the work required of the user to traverse textual space is significant as compared to the rest of a set where such work remains negligible. Thus the nontrivial for Aarseth indicates that the user’s effort to traverse the medium of the text (coupled with various ways that the medium exhibits its structure to the user) is significant in the overall structure and interpretation of the literary object. Aarseth writes that “the different ways in which the reader is invited to “complete” a text – and the text’s various self-manipulating devices are what the concept of cybertext is all about” (20). How the reader “completes a text” and how the text “manipulates” this effort becomes significant; they are nontrivial and cannot be discarded or overlooked in a discussion of the text’s structure or meaning.

Aarseth reveals what is significant about nontrivial effort through an analysis of how cybertexts are structured, how their topologies function and how the user makes her way through these topologies. Yet, at the end of Cybertext Aarseth invites the reader, “Please use these terms in any way you find pleasurable, please rewrite them, refute them, or erase them…” (183). Thus I am inclined to offer another thinking of the trivial in relation to the traversal of a cybertext. I wish to suggest that the moment that textual navigation becomes nontrivial (the effort to traverse the text becomes significant to the interpretive process) is the same moment that the trivial appears within the textual world – the trivial in the sense of what might have been, what choices at the crossroads the user could have made, what little (no)things have brushed the user and sent her this way instead of that. The choices a user makes within the traversal of a cybertext – the links she clicks, the structural configurations she manipulates, the paths she undertakes, and the accidents that lead to clarity or confusion – are marked with the trivial, the uninvestigated choices made at cybertextual crossroads. When cybertexts become structures of forking paths, intersections, and crossroads they carry the touch of the trivial, the passing glance of fate that occurs at the meeting of the trivium. In the introduction of Cybertext Aarseth writes that,

…when you read from a cybertext you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed (3).

“Paths not taken, voices not heard,” these are the “might-have-beens” that Smith wrote of in his aphorism, “The Coming of Fate.” When Smith writes, “So I never lose a sense of the whimsical and perilous charm of daily life, with its meetings and words and accidents,” we see these same “perilous charms” contained within the meetings, words and accidents associated with the operation of a cybertext. Once again, the moment when the user’s topological navigation of the text becomes nontrivial or significant is the same moment that her significant choices are marked with the influence of trivial (no)things, “fragile Chance” and ultimately the Coming of Fate – the throw of the yarrow sticks, the shuffling of the pages, the sudden urge to follow this link instead of that. When we turn our attention toward the theorization of the nontrivial there is always the residue of the trivial that skirts our theoretical nets, always the faint tickle of Fate laughing as it does when it passes near to the musings of the human mind.

Recall that Smith discovered trivia and the trivial “when [he sought] out the sources of [his] thoughts.” At the source of thinking Smith uncovered paradox: the oscillation between significance and trivialness. Sometimes Aarseth’s structural analysis of cybertext seems haughty and overwrought, the significance toward which his theory aims begins to eclipse the “perilous charms” and trivial choices that also operate within cybertextual space. Indeed, when Aarseth examines the navigation of the user in a cybertext he can focus upon the significant new forms of textual traversal, but he should remember the whimsical choices that compose any cybertext reading. In his introduction to Cybertext Aarseth implies that his “comparative analysis” of textual forms creates “overarching, or universal, perspectives,” in other words, a significant, nontrivial theory of literature. I wish to invoke the potential for trivial theories, examinations of those little (no)things that influence our actions as we make our way through the world or through the worlds of cybertext. These trivial no(things) announce the Coming of Fate though we often fail to notice it. In Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1992), the character Frank Frink observed after consulting the I Ching (Aarseth’s exemplary cybertext from ancient times): “Then the oracle must refer to some future consequence of this. That is the trouble; later on, when it has happened, you can look back and see exactly what it meant. But now—” (101-2). Yes, but now – as we continue to pursue the nontrivial aspects of cybertext navigation – we should also attempt to feel the trivial as it touches us on its way away, remembering that even our trivial pursuits harbor an elusive significance.

 

Endnotes

[1] Being a text on the trivial it makes sense that I include a splattering of trifles such as recording the ventures of my little efforts to locate the trivial. Indeed, commonsense suggests that I would remove such trifles from the text, jumping into the juice, bypassing the boring nothings of research in order to get at the point, the nontrivial and essential aspects of my discoveries. Yet, in this particular case it seems counterintuitive to forgo all trifles for the substance, to portray an essence without revealing the picayune tasks that led to discovery. If I am writing in “pursuit of the trivial” it would make sense that the writing contain elements of the pursuit. If I wish to express the trivial I should stay near to its expressions.

[2] It is not surprising that George W. S. Trow writes in 1980 that, “Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial” (45). True, Trow uses the term “trivial” in a derogatory sense, not in the sense of Smith, yet his words reveal how television and our information society in general have flattened cultural space to the point where all of life is “trivialized,” that is, no moment emerges as more essential than another.

[3] In my search for trivia and the trivial I chanced upon this word viamedia, a middle way, discovered in a tattered Funk and Wagnalis, circa, a long time ago. I like this word viamedia because it contains the via or way, the media or middle, and then the sense of media as a way between, as a substance between a means and an end – print media, electronic media, film media, the air as media for sound. I like its charming ring: it’s got that end of the 20th century techno-slither. Yet, what would viamedia mean as a concept? I’m not entirely sure; there’s something too simple in viamedia, something untouchable. Yet I think it trembles between the text and its hyper- or cyber- signposts. It harmonizes with the recent work of Jay Bolter and Dave Grusin on remediation, an idea of how media circulate within and between each other, never stable but actively incorporating aspects of each other (for an exemplary reading of a literary text that uses Bolter and Grusin’s work on remediation one might examine Katherine Hayles’ recent exegesis of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (109-130)). I think viamedia samples Michael Joyce’s discussion of coherency as “the middle voice of consciously making sense for oneself and yet among others” (62). I think it rings close to the pitch of trivia which literally means “three ways” – a first road, a second, and then a third which meets between them. There is something about this betweeness (the meeting of multiple media in the process of remediation, Joyce’s middle voice, viamedia, etc.) that is marked by the coming of fate, something we cannot ever know, though we may feel it. When we go looking for it, it whisks away though we feel the breeze of its going. Yet, must I define viamedia, conceptualize it and touch it with the fairy dust of theory? If I get to close to definition its meaning recedes. Perhaps I will just leave it here in a footnote, leaving its potential ring as I step back to the main text. 

[4] It is not without notice that in medieval times the trivium composed the lesser liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric while the quadrivium composed the four higher arts of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. The trivium and its grammar, logic, and rhetoric, is the crossroads of writing, and it behooves us, as writers and readers of theory and fiction, to listen at the crossroads for the subtle whisper of the trivial and its quiet, though perilous, passings. Roland Barthes once wrote:

A writer – by which I mean not the possessor of a function or the servant of an art, but the subject of a praxis – must have the persistence of the watcher who stands at the crossroads of all other discourses, in a position that is trivial in relation to the purity of doctrine (trivialis is the etymological attribute of the prostitute who waits at the intersection of three roads) (467).

The writer – outside official discourses and the higher arts – occupies a “trivial position” in order to step within the realm of the trivial itself, in order to attune him or herself to the coaxing of the furies and that subtle breeze that sings the coming and goings of fate. The writer steps beside the crossroads and within the trivial in order to watch and feel the brush of fate as it quietly touches the event.

 [5] The use of the term “nontrivial” doesn’t become an absolutely essential concept for Aarseth. In fact, its use is merely trivial, and it seems as if Aarseth views the understanding of the term in reference to cybertext as self-evident. If Aarseth can be chided at all in his use of the term nontrivial it would be in his explicit desire to use rigorous terminology; thus he should have been aware of the ambiguous use of nontrivial. Indeed in the introduction to Cybertext Aarseth acknowledges that his “terminology was a potential source for confusion” (2), with particular attention paid to the term nonlinear. In fact, later he will highlight this problem further:

 

As we saw in the discussion of the terms nonlinear and multilinear, a major problem in recent discussions of computer media is a lack of rigorous terminology. The discussion of these terms, while intrinsic to the question of hypertext, shows that the field of computer mediated textuality is in need of a terminology that has distinctive power as well as unproblematic connotations. Since the term nonlinear is somewhat broad and unclear, as well as negatory, I do not use it as an active term in this typology but as a corrective (59).

 

How strange then for nontrivial effort to show up and become a “difficulty” for the explanation of cybertext (as evidenced by the Markku Eskelinen quote recounted above): with the nontrivial, not only do we have a negative term but also a term that hasn’t any attention paid to its rigor, distinctive power, or connotation. It was partly this strange appearance of the “nontrivial” (and its subsequent conceptual fame) that lead me to question its affirmative double, the trivial.

 

References

Aarseth, Espen. (1997). Cybertext.  Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Barrett, Erin and Jack Mingo. (2000). Just Curious, Jeeves.  Emeryville, CA: Publishers Group West.

Barthes, Roland. (1983). A Barthes Reader. New York: Noonday Press.

Bolter, Jay, Richard Grusin. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dick, Phillip.  The Man in the High Castle. (1992). New York: Vintage Books.

Eskelinen, Markku. (Jan. 9, 2003). “Cybertext Theory: What An English Professor Should Know Before Trying.” Electronic Book Review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/ v3/servlet/ebr?command=view_essay&essay_id=eskelinenrip

Hayles, Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Joyce, Michael. (2000). Othermindedness: The emergency of network culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Smith, Logan Pearsall, (1984, 1945). All Trivia: Trivia, More Trivia, Afterthoughts, Last Words. New York: Ticknor & Fields.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. (Jan.4, 2002). Trans. F. Storr.. http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html

Thoreau, Henry David. (July 20, 2003). Walden.Reading”. http://eserver.org/thoreau/walden03.html

Trow, George W. S. (1997). Within the Context of No Context. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Worth, Fred L. (1974). The Trivia Encyclopedia.  Angeles: Brooke House.

 


Copyright 2004 Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced without written permission of the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship,

P.O. Box 57, Rotterdam Jct., NY 12150 USA (phone: 518-887-2443).