(RWTH Aachen)

“Narratives and Reader Response as Complicity: An Approach from Cognitive and Empirical Literary Studies”

Can literary narratives lure readers into adopting ideological stances that are not their own, at least temporarily? And if so, by means of which strategies do they do so? It is a time-honoured practice in both reader-oriented and ideology-critical literary studies to assert that ‘the text’ has certain effects on ‘the reader’. However, when we consider flesh-and-blood readers, and when we want to investigate their actual responses to literary and filmic narratives with a view to complicity, five challenges become apparent. (1) We need to specify which specific features of the literary artefact are likely to address readers in ways that invite them to become complicit with the narrative’s value systems; this refers to both the content level, including topic and plot, and to the aesthetic level, including perspective and language use. (2) We need theories and process models of the dynamic conscious or unconscious cognitive and emotional operations that occur during the reception process in readers and viewers. With a view to complicity, it is of particular importance to understand how the reception processes that concern the understanding of a narrative (i.e., the more cognitive aspects) interact with affective and evaluative ones. Given the current state of emotion theories and their uses in literary studies, this is a considerable challenge. On a more general level, (3) we need to recognize the influence of a narrative’s genre on the likelihood that recipients become complicit; a science fiction novel, for instance, will address readers in different ways from a Bildungsroman, a crime thriller or a family saga. (4) A reader’s personal reading preferences and reception dispositions may contribute to the quality and degree of the complicity elicited. Individual differences between readers tend to be overlooked in literary studies, but have to be taken seriously in empirical research as factors influencing response. (5) With a view to effects beyond the immediate reception process, complicity with a narratives’ evaluations may be temporary or persistent, and it can be partial or complete; we ought to consider, too, that readers may playfully adopt ideological stances, suspending their own attitudes for the sake of the experience of taking unfamiliar perspectives. Situated within the broader framework of Cognitive and Empirical Literary Studies, this project aims at developing clearly defined and well operationalized hypotheses concerning all of the mentioned factors of complicity in readers’ responses to narratives. It will make use of cognitive-psychological approaches to cognition and emotion in literary reading to develop theories and hypotheses. Ultimately, it aims at testing the hypotheses, studying actual readers’ responses with a triangulation of qualitative and quantitative methods.