Hermeneutics are the base for almost everything I enjoy as an artist/writer/creator. I'm fascinated with the human brain's ability to make (and, often, inability to avoid making) connections, which are what prompt readers to make interpretations in the first place. If hermeneutics weren't factored into every facet of human communication—if everyone said exactly what they meant, and everyone heard those things said and understood them perfectly—it's possible that the world would be a significantly better place, that healthy relationships would be as common as sand, and that war would all but disappear (and, certainly, its travesties would be less tremendous). It's also likely that art would be holistically boring. And I'd also lose my job, because students would no longer need English departments.
Luckily (or, you know, for me anyway), hermeneutics are everywhere. Interpretation is everything. Even right now, my brain is attempting to communicate with yours, and your brain is attempting to interpret that communication. That communication looks a little something like this:
Even this method of communication, using poorly-drawn diagrams, isn't hermeneutically foolproof. Not by a longshot. Even if you can ignore that the center of the image is what appears (to me) to be a written page, even though this blog post will only ever appear online, there's still issues in symbolic interpretation. The two arrows, for instance, which to me represent the writing and reading (respectively) of ideas, emotions, and/or experiences as they're communicated through written language, may mean something entirely different to you. They may not even look like arrows, depending on the contrast in our symbol literacy. Here's another try:
We could obviously keep going (physical filters like eyesight or hearing; language barriers; cultural literacy; our mood when reading something; etc), but for the sake of time (and our sanities), I'll stop trying to make the perfect diagram here.
This hermeneutics problem is present, by the way, in all communication. Not just creative writing, where authors frequently intend metaphors or other interpretive hurdles. Even the writing that is (allegedly) designed to be the clearest possible method of communication—Law—has an entire career field of people determined to find interpretative leeway for their clients and purposes. A post-it note from your middle school crush that says, "Do you like me?"; a one-word email from your direct supervisor; almost every tweet from the President of the United States; all are subject to the same level of hermeneutic confusion and possibility.
But that's not the half of it.
In comes what Espen Aarseth, a Computer Games researcher at the IT University of Copenhagen, calls ergodic literature, which he defines as literature in which "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text." These are texts in which the reader must, for instance, flip to page 86 to discover what happens if the protagonist attempts to throw a rock at his soon-to-be murderer, or (in Aarseth's wheelhouse) Michael Joyce's "Twelve Blue", a story that utilizes hypertext (internet links) to be traversed.
Suddenly hermeneutics doesn't just exist at the crossroads of a writer's experience and a reader's experience as they relate to a central text object. Now we've got a central text object that writhes unruly at a reader's hands, such that it's extremely unlikely that the author could fully anticipate in what direction or method the reader is even going to go about traversing the text in the first place. This is especially true when these ergodic texts get large in scale, like the novels S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, or Night Film by Marisha Pessl. The distance between writer and reader becomes massive.
But I think that's what I like about it.
I like that ergodic literature demands a lot of me as a reader. And I'm excited by the prospects of people reading my work and piecing together their own narratives, their own stories that rely entirely on the decisions they make in traversing mine. I've been playing around with Twine, a free hypertext story builder, to create stories that force readers to decide what's going to become important or unimportant about the story, like "wikiEmbalm," which follows a teenager who lied his way into a job at the local funeral home, embalming bodies. The reader gets to help him look up how to do it on his dying smart phone. It doesn't go well.
The teaching possibilities are even more exciting. So frequently as writing instructors, we're trying to get students to consider their audience, to avoid hiding details from their reader because they can picture things so clearly in their own head. But in doing so, we're often enforcing the idea that the ideal reading experience looks something like this:
In doing so, we frequently throw out why we wanted to be artists in the first place. The whole point (for me, at least) of being creative is to create something that only you can. I'm worried that if we focus too much on the perfect harmony between what's written and what's read, we're risking the uniqueness that made us sit down in the first place.
So I've started bringing Twine into the classroom. I'll show my students Depression Quest (which was made in Twine) or Façade (which wasn't) to capture the value of creating something that doesn't lock in a guaranteed experience. And then I'll tell them to create their own. We call it a Digital Monstrosity.
When I pitch the project to my students, the idea of control inevitably comes up. Students who, to that point, have been incredibly vocal about explaining their work to others, or have already hard-formed opinions on what writing is and does, almost always protest. But inevitably, once we've reached the end of the project, those complaints born out of their hesitations become echoed as articles of praise in their celebrations (and often in their meta-assignment letters). They begin to love the idea that each person coming to their work is going to take away an entirely different experience (by design). There's something overwhelmingly joyful about setting out without feeling tied down by trying to communicate in the most clear way possible.
It frees them to make something that exists for itself.
If you want to play/read my story "wikiEmbalm" in its current state, you can find it hosted on the Twine-related site, Philomela.
If you want to try to make your own interactive story, check out http://twinery.org/ to get started. I highly recommend the wiki, which helps push even some of my most digital-illiterate students right into the driver seat.
If you're interested in Espen Aarseth's deconstruction of ergodic literature (most often via digital storytelling), check out Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
I also highly recommend Jerome Bruner's work, "The Narrative Construction of Reality," which is the source of the quote at the top of this post.