"All this remains obscure!"
– the 'real' difference in hypertexts
Actually – and 'actually' is already quite a good term to start with – I had planned to present to you a hypertext project called Chaos/Control:Complexity, a cd-rom featuring digital proceedings from a conference on Chaos Theory and the human sciences. But then recently certain circumstances lead me to think about the terms the virtual and the actual as they appear in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. And at some moment, which I cannot really trace back, I thought that these two terms might be mapped onto the workings and operations of digital media. Thus, instead of talking about Chaos/Control:Complexity I will stick to chaos only, present to you an 'idea in progress' and talk about a couple of deleuzian concepts which might add a new perspective to the discussion of hypertexts. I must warn you that this talk is open ended, that I unfortunately won't be able to wrap things up in the end or present to you a neat conclusion. But maybe in the following discussion we can talk about whether approaching the phenomenon of digital texts from a deleuzian perspective can add anything to the current debate.

First, I will briefly recapitulate the terminology as coined by Espen Aarseth, then give you a short impression of why I think that the deleuzian terminology is particularly fitting for the discussion of hypertexts and in the following try to point out the relevance of the terms the actual and the virtual for the discourse on digital texts. But before this a quick remark about the terms hypertext and digital text that I will use synonymously throughout the talk: they do not refer to a specific hypertext, rather to an abstract idea, the 'ideal' hypertext: an acentered network of heterogeneous elements in which each point can be connected to every other point to develop a multilinear structure and which requires the input of energy to be read. I hope that the importance of this last feature will become clear later on.

In his book Cybertext published in 1997, the Norwegian cybertext theorist Espen Aarseth tries to untangle the various strands of terminology that had formed the discourse about digital texts since their appearance in the late eighties. Aarseth critically examines terms like 'hypertext', 'interactive writing' and the claims about the uniqueness of the new form of computer generated and supported texts from a predominately linguistic point of view.

One of the most important new terms that Aarseth introduces (and which allows for a clearer distinction and categorisation of the various forms of digital texts) is the term cybertext. A cybertext is defined by Aarseth as a form of writing in which "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" (Aarseth, 1), nontrivial here meaning simply that the reader has to invest 'work' that goes beyond the turning of the page or the movement of the eyes. Thus he calls cybertexts a form of ergodic literature, derived "from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning 'work' and 'path'" (ibid).

In contrast to many of his predecessors who had tied multilinear writing to the computer, this new definition allowed for a discussion of the hypertextual qualities of a system of writing without the limitation to a certain medium. [We all know the claims that one is faced with when dealing with digital literature: that these are just hype-ertexts, that there's nothing new about the idea of inter|intratextuality, that it has been done before by Burroughs in his cut-ups, by Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962), by Cortazar in Hopscotch (1966), or even in 800 b. C. in the Chinese book of oracles, the I Ching. In my opinion, many of these objections come from a deep-rooted fear and the misconception that hypertexts would substitute the book, that they would take over all of literature and that we were about to sign the death warrant of the book. However, I think that the past couple of years have shown that these fears are ungrounded, that the computer will never replace the book, that the "print carrier" does not have to fear the "digital carrier" (Berressem, "Data Dance", 7) and I dare to predict that even Harry Potter Volume 45 will still be published as a book instead of as a cd-rom.] Aarseth's definition of a cybertext helps to reconcile the two forms of media (print and digital that is) by operating above their boundaries and by stressing their parallel workings instead of their differences.

In addition to 'cybertext' and 'ergodic literature', Aarseth suggests the terms scripton and texton to describe the ontological dualism of a cybertext: Scriptons are "strings (of signs) as they appear to readers" and those parts of a cybertext that are not directly accessible to the reader/user are termed textons and defined as "strings (of signs) as they exist in the text" (Aarseth, 62). In conventional literature, the scriptons equal the textons because the immobility of the signifiers ensure that there can be no divergence between the text that is stored on the page and the text that is displayed on it.

In a cybertext, however, there is a split, a divergence between texton and scripton which is in(tro)duced by the material dynamism of the text. Content and sequentiality of what is presented are not predetermined but emerge out of the movement of the text. Thus, Aarseth evokes an architecture with two floors. On the 'lower level' there is a kind of textual reservoir or archive that the reader cannot access directly: the texton-level. And on the 'upper level' there is a textual interface, the surface of the cybertext [that is folded onto the screen]: the scripton-level.

Between the textons and the scriptons, Aarseth positions what he terms: the traversal function which he defines as "the mechanism by which scriptons are revealed or generated from textons and presented to the user of the text" (62) or, in other words, the selections of the reader and the calculations of the machine.

Aarseth's terms have two important implications: on the one hand they emphasize the reception side (in his definition of scriptons, for exampe, Aarseth explicitly includes a perceiving subject) and they stress the role of the reader in general: he implicitly includes the reader in the term 'ergodic literature' since the reader is the agency that has to invest the "ergon", the work in/of ergodic literature. On the other hand his terminology completely de-couples the text from the medium. And this is of course the reason for assigning such an important role to the reader because to get rid of the medium Aarseth has to focus on the perceiving subject to account for the work and the production of the text which, in his conceptualization, becomes entirely a working and production of the reader.

There already is a terminology war raging in the field of digital media and the weapons are words such as hypertexts, cybertexts, digital texts, nonlinear texts, interactive texts, internet texts, dynamic texts, multimedia texts, online texts and the list goes on and on. I don’t really intend to partake in this battle, but I think that the attempt to map deleuzian concepts onto hypertexts allow for an important new perspective, one which acknowledges the uniqueness of the medium computer. Thus I would like to suggest to turn to the terms the virtual and the actual which figure prominently in all of Deleuze's works. His concepts have always been terminological 'attractors' for the discussion of digital media that seemed to have created a stronger 'gravitational pull' than those by other theoreticitans.

From the beginning, the concept of hypertexts has been an attractive one for poststructuralist theory. The possibilities of digital, multilinear writing have been hailed as the embodiment of derridean différance or of intertextuality as theorized by Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes. But the one theoretician who was 'embraced,' adapted and adopted from within 'cyber culture' has been Gilles Deleuze. From the word go, internet and hypertext pioneers have referred to deleuzian ideas and concepts, especially to his description of an acentered, non-hierarchical network developed with his co-author Félix Guattari in the introduction to their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Deleuze and Guattari borrow the term "rhizome" from biology to describe a web of heterogeneous multiplicities in which every point is connected to every other point and they explicitly demand that literature should work according to such a rhizomatic structure. [Although they would probably not call a rhizome a structure, since for D&G the term structure always implies the absence of dynamics, whereas a rhizome is defined by its constant ‘becoming,’ unfolding and development.] The concept of the rhizome was picked up by the net-community and soon became the predominate metaphor for the infrastructure of the internet. On the other hand, it was ‘discovered’ by literary critics to describe the narrative structure of many hypertexts and thus was used to describe both, the ‘natural’ environment of hypertexts (the internet) and their inner narrative structures.

But it is not only the concept of the rhizome that has made its way into the discourse on digital media. Also Deleuze’s notion of ‘folding’ as developed in his book The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque and his insistent claims for a rethinking of space as being topological rather than Euclidian  (a thought that’s underlying all of his philosophical ideas) have been used for the development of a hypertext-poetics, for example in Hanjo Berressem's article Text-Folding which is in itself a multilinear hypertext.

The virtual and the actual are two key concepts in Deleuze's philosophy. It is important to underline that the virtual is in no way connected to the term virtuality as it is used in the discussion of cyberworlds or 'virtual reality'. For Deleuze, the "virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual" (Difference and Repetition, 208). Brian Massumi, in his book on Deleuze, describes the virtual as "the future-past of all actuality, the pool of potentiality from which universal history draws its choices (…)" (Massumi, 66). In contrast to the actual, which is corporeal in form and substance, the "reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements and relations along with the singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure" (D&R, 209). The virtual is thus the sum of all potential relations and unfoldings, a field of structural potentiality and as such can be mapped perfectly onto the 'archive' of a cybertext and located on the level of Aarseth's textons which, as differential elements that enter in singular relations with each other via the link structure, form a pool of potential unfoldings:

When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its 'virtual' or 'embryonic' elements. The elements, varieties of relations and singular points coexist in the work or the object, in the virtual part of the work or object, without it being possible to designate a point of view privileged over others, a centre which would unify the other centres. (D&R, 209)
This seems to be a perfect description of the texton-level: elements (texts, images, sounds) and their relations (links) coexisting without a privileged point of view, without a center.

Virtualities have to be actualized, they are 'formed out' by a process of differenciation: "For the nature of the virtual is such that, for it, to be actualized is to be differenciated. Each differenciation is a local integration or a local solution which then connects with others in the overall solution or the global integration" (D&R, 211). This process of differenciation might be read as a series of results of local choices which connect with other choices: text parts are selected and then connect with past/future texts that have been or will be chosen: the actualization of a hypertext. Thus the virtual structure is translated into an actual one which is presented on the screen, on the level of the scriptons. As the virtual is located on the texton-level, the actual is located on the scripton level.

Locating the actual does not mean to fix it. It is important to underline that actuality is processual, just like the reading of a hypertext. As Massumi points out: "To drive home that actuality is dynamic (Deleuze and Guattari) use the word 'becoming' in place of 'being'. A thing's actuality is its duration as a process – of genesis and annihilation, of movement across thresholds and toward the limit" (Massumi, 37). Again an almost perfect description of the 'becoming' of a hypertext on the screen: it's specific mode of being lies in the movement, in the appearance and disappearance of text on the screen, in a stopping and starting along what Deleuze and Guattari would call 'lines of flight'.

But actualization is also defined by an additional feature: In The Fold, Deleuze emphasized that "the world has actuality only in its monads, which each convey it from each monad’s point of view and on its own surface" (104). He takes up the term 'monad' from Leibniz and in the context of this talk it might be sufficient to use it synonymously with 'consciousness', as Deleuze himself has in Difference and Repetition. This additional dimension of consciousness corresponds to the notion of the reader of a hypertext which Aarseth so vehemently anchors in his terminology: this shifts the notion of actualization from the 'production' of a hypertext to its reception, which – at the same time – becomes the production of the reader, because, as Deleuze explains:

Actualisation takes place in three series: space, time and also consciousness. Every spatio-temporal dynamism is accompanied by the emergence of an elementary conscious which itself traces directions, doubles movements and migrations, and is born on the threshold of the condensed singularities of the body or object whose consciousness it is. (D&R, 220)
Series one: space. The text is unfolded onto the space of the screen which, due to the relations and connections between the singular texts, becomes three-dimensional. Series two: time. Due to the dynamic, processual nature of the hypertext it is also unfolded in time. Series three: consciousness: the foregoing two series simultaneously create and are created by the agency of the reader who, by singular movements, traces his/her own movements/directions and those of the text and assembles the various textual plateaus and their relations which s/he encountered during the course of reading, or of 'doing' the hypertext, into a coherent whole. This concept recalls Roland Barthes' description of the reader as an apersonal agency, "without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted" (Barthes, 148).

So, where has this lead us? We have 'simply' exchanged the terms texton and scripton by virtual and actual and read the process of constructing a hypertext on the screen as the actualization of a virtual potentiality, a process which would be impossible without the agent of a consciousness that operates as the site in which the relations, connections and unfoldings of the singular text-plateaus are gathered.

But, and here is the deleuzian extra: "The world is a virtuality that is actualized (in) monads or souls, but also a possibility that must be realized in matter or in bodies" (Fold, 104. My italics). So besides the coupling of the virtual and the actual, Deleuze assumes an additional level, that of the coupling of the possible and the real. This latter pair is located on a purely material level and operates simultaneously with the virtual – actual:

The only danger in all this is that the virtual could be confused with the possible. The possible is opposed to the real; the process undergone by the possible is therefore a 'realisation'. By contrast, the virtual is not opposed to the real; it possesses a full reality by itself. The process it undergoes is that of actualisation (D&R, 211).
Deleuze thinks the 'materiality of matter' as radical and as elementary as possible. This is expressed explicitly in A Thousand Plateaus when the difference between matter and substance is explained:
Während die Substanz eine geformte Materie ist, ist die Materie eine physikalisch oder semiotisch nicht geformte Substanz. Während Inhalt und Ausdruck bestimmte Formen haben und sich wirklich voneienander unterscheiden, hat die Funktion nur Inhalts- oder Ausdrucks- 'Merkmale' und stellt eine Verbindung zwischen ihnen her: Man kann noch nicht einmal mehr sagen, ob es ein Partikel oder ein Zeichen ist. Ein Materie-Inhalt, der nur Grade von Intensität, Widerstand, Leitfähigkeit, Erhitzung, Dehnung, Geschwindigkeit oder Verzögerung hat; einen Funktionsausdruck, der nur noch 'Tensoren' hat, wie in einem mathematischen oder musikalischen Schriftsystem. Die Schrift funktioniert jetzt auf derselben Ebene wie das Reale, und das Reale schreibt materiell. (TP, 195-6)
Thus one has to differentiate between two modes or 'planes': the level of the substance, on which actualization operates via virtual forms: semiotics. At the same time and in the same place possibilities are realized in matter via pure intensities, levels of energy, heat, speeds: physics. Two operations on two planes which could be figured like the two sides of a sheet of paper. However, this Saussurean example should not lead to confusing the virtual/actual with the signified and the possible/real with the signifier. If one wanted to map the terms that Saussure uses (or represses for that matter) on the deleuzian concepts one would have to situate the signified and the signifier on the 'conscious' plane of the virtual/actual and the referent on the 'unconscious' plane of the possible/real.

For Deleuze, "[...] the world is taken as a double process – of actualization in monads and of realization in bodies" (The Fold, 105). This double process of mind and matter, this interplay of the plane of representation and the plane of production is something that previous taxonomies – such as Aarseth's - have not described. But the plane of production, the operations of pure matter, the realization of some-thing that is simultaneously actualized as a text by a consciousness is a crucial (and I would argue even unique) feature of digital media. And I think that the (re)introduction of deleuzian concepts might be a good starting point to open the discourse to the 'real' working of the medium.

Instead of a conclusion:

The ultimate question is of course: how is the combination of a virtual potentiality and a material possibility, the connection between code and energy, connected to an aesthetics of hypertexts? Unfortunately I don't have an answer to this question, but there are certain tendencies and perspectives that would be worth a further investigation. These have to do with the 'kind' of matter of digital texts: Because digital texts rely on 'active' matter, on matter that is filled with potential because it contains intensity differences, which very simply means: energy is flowing. And this flow creates the potentiality for matter to operate, to realize, to form.

In contrast, a book is made out of 'passive' matter. It is static, it has reached the point of maximum entropy: intensities are levelled out unless energy is added from the outside, for example in the form of heat which will make it burn and turn and go up in smoke. This is the 'real' difference between a digital text and a print text. There are material intensity differences in a digital text created by the fact that matter is constantly charged with energy from the outside (that is: electricity), and this energy allows for movement, for dynamism, allows for the text to work. It will 'function'. It will operate. In contrast to a conventional book, in which you can represent codes and formulas: but they will stay passive, they won't make it move. There is no dynamics of realization in a conventional text. It is fully realized by the time the ink has dried on the pages.

Deleuzian concepts try to do the paradox: to think the material. Discussing digital texts from a deleuzian perspective allows for the acknowledgement of the workings of matter. Aarseth's approach to define cybertexts without considering the medium might have been a brave step – but ultimately it might have lead into the wrong direction. Also in Aarseth's definition of ergodic literature, the "nontrivial effort" is linked, per definition, to the movement of the reader. But the reader does not move. At least not on a material level. The text does!

Manuel De Landa emphasizes that Deleuze's philosophy

attempts to replace essentialist views of the genesis of form (which imply a conception of matter as an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside) with one in which matter is already pregnant with morphogenetic capabilities, therefore capable of generating form on its own. (De Landa, np)
And this would lead us to a completely new focus: what if the text generates itself? Could one imagine a truly autopoietic process which can only happen in "active matter", in matter that is charged with possibilities created by intensity differences on the one hand and virtual potentialities on the other? An unfolding that is only partly coupled to selections and input of the reader but that works from within the logics of the text? Could one imagine textual operations that work independently from an authorial function or program as well as independently from readerly navigation or control? Maybe such a logic could be called – again in deleuzian terms – 'an abstract machine'.
An abstract machine in itself is not physical or corporeal, any more than it is semiotic; it is diagrammatic (it knows nothing of the distinction between the artificial and the natural either). It operates by matter, not by substance; by function, not by form ... the abstract machine is pure Matter-Function – a diagram independent of the forms and substances, expressions and contents it will distribute (D&R, 141).
In the last paragraph of A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari describe such an abstract machine and link it closely to the 'pure materiality' of the computer. Coincidence?
Abstrakte Maschinen bestehen aus ungeformten Materien und nichtformalen Funktionen. Jede abstrakte Maschine ist ein festgefügtes Ensemble von Materien-Funktionen (…). Das läßt sich sehr gut auf einer technologischen 'Ebene' erkennen: eine solche Ebene besteht nicht einfach aus geformten Substanzen, aus Aluminium, Plastik, Elektrokabel etc., noch aus organisierenden Formen, Programmen, Prototypen etc., sondern aus einem Ensemble von ungeformten Materien, die nur verschiedene Intensitätsgrade darstellen (Widerstand, Leitfähigkeit, Erhitzung, Ausdehnung, Geschwindigkeit oder Verzögerung, Induktion, Transduktion…), und aus diagrammatischen Funktionen, die nur Differentialgleichungen oder ganz allgemein 'Tensoren' darstellen. (TP, 706)
Or, to quote Gilles Deleuze from The Fold: "All this remains obscure" (24).


Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. 142-148.
Berressem, Hanjo. "Data Dance." In Chaos/Control:Complexity. Edited & designed by Philipp Hofmann. Hamburg: Lit, 2002. 7-42.
--, Text/Folding. [http://www.p0es1s.net/poetics/symposion2001/a_berressem.html] Jan 24, 2004.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
--, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
De Landa, Manuel. "Deleuze, Diagrams, and the Genesis of Form." In Chaos/Control:Complexity. Edited & designed by Philipp Hofmann. Hamburg: Lit, 2002. CD-ROM.
Massumi, Brian. A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.