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The construction of readers as (co-)observers in multimodal novels. Radical reader engagement in the visual age

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Readers as Observers (The construction of readers as (co-)observers in multimodal novels. Radical reader engagement in the visual age)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The research action at the University of Oslo (UiO) examined the radical forms of reader engagement in contemporary multimodal novels, drawing on the notions of the embodied reader, the multisensory and material nature of literature, and social cognition phenomena such as joint attention and their crucial relevance for narrative engagement. It took its starting point from the striking appeal to the reader’s visual perception in contemporary multimodal novels. Drawing on state-of-the-art research in interdisciplinary narratology, cognitive linguistics, and visual semiotics, the project analysed the strategies that enable multimodal novels to assign an observer role to the reader and present a narrative agent or the book itself as a ‘co-observer’ on eye-level. While research on contemporary English-language multimodal novels has laid important analytical groundwork, the research action aimed to expand the frame by taking a more diachronic as well as comparative perspective.

The first objective of the project was thus to develop a comparative analytical approach based on several case studies of German- and English-language multimodal novels and contrastive corpora of historical multimodal print media such as illustrated magazines. The notion of the reader-observer constitutes the nucleus of this approach, since it allows to systematically address the textual strategies that ‘materialise’ the narration and appeal to the reader’s ‘inner eye’ and multi-sensory mental imagination. Drawing on this crucial notion, the project’s second objective was to contribute on a larger scale to the seminal field of cognitive narratology and further its consideration of media and genre-historical contexts.
The launch of the research action took place in form of a first project presentation within the interdisciplinary hub “Literature, Cognition and Emotions (LCE)” that constituted my main research environment at UiO, and a short research stay at the “Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin”, included a project presentation at an international workshop at Humboldt-University Berlin. Both launch activities proved crucial for implementing the notion of ‘4E cognition’ – that is, of the enactive, embedded, embodied, and extended qualities of the mind – as key aspect of the project’s theoretical and analytical approach. Additionally, the research action’s starting period was marked by the launch of the project website. In the following project phase, I co-organised and co-hosted two research workshops in cooperation with colleagues form LCE and UiO’s department of Comparative Literature, inviting internationally experts from literary and media studies, cognitive linguistics and psychology, as well as empirical reader response research as key contributors. Both workshops also included a public outreach event, one at Oslo’s House of Literature, one at the National Library of Norway. The project’s next crucial stage was marked by the secondment period at the Norwegian Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger, focusing on methodological questions.

In addition to the outlined events and measures, I participated in various international conferences and workshops in the course of the project. Due to the covid-19 pandemic however, several planned events had to be cancelled. In total, the project presentations and research discussions within the different outlets played a crucial role in developing the project further, in consolidating its framework and sharpening its hypotheses.

The project’s main research results so far can be outlined as follows: As the project’s comparative corpus analyses showed, the dominant appeal to the readers’ visual perception in multimodal novels and the strategies to position them as (co-)observers serve to evoke the readers’ readiness for multisensory engagement with the text. To this end, as the conducted research showed, the novels also make significant use of ‘traditional’ stylistic and narrative strategies of reader engagement, such as the figure of the ‘fictive publisher’. With regard to multimodal novels as well as other historical multimodal print artefacts (such as illustrated magazines), the research action was able to substantiate the hypothesis that textual/narrative and multimodal elements alike are being functionalized to direct the reader-observer’s attention to the medium (book, magazine, etc.) as a physical artefact and a complex communicative object that readers have to and do engage with in a multisensory way.

With regard to dissemination and communication, the research work so far resulted in four book chapters (one published, two forthcoming, one in peer review), two journal articles (one published, one to be submitted in Feb. 2022), two review articles, a contribution to a poster exhibition at UiO, a short essay in an edited volume targeted at a broader audience, a podcast episode on “Multimodality and Materiality in Literature”, and a concept video on “Material Reading” (both currently in post-production).
Against the backdrop of looking at the novel and its development within our contemporary ‘multi-mediaverse’, the project was able to consolidate the hypothesis currently debated in literary studies that multimodal novels and their use of ‘bookish’ materiality can be seen as a showcase for the printed book’s unique affordances that remain undiminished, even in the digital age. As crucial part of its innovative approach, however, the research project introduced a broader media-historical comparative perspective, focusing on historical illustrated periodicals. By that, the project in part aimed to expand established (cognitive) narratological and stylistic research approaches to multimodal literature. What is more, though, it aimed to re-negotiate their scope, outlining and arguing for a more integrated framework of looking at literary texts as material mediated artefacts – even beyond the ‘special’ case of multimodal novels in the narrower sense – that appeal to the readers senses as well as their minds. Thus, a crucial result of the research action that goes beyond the state of the art lies in the combination of the project’s key notion of ‘reader-observers’ and its media-historic perspective with the constitutive research paradigm of the embodied reader, as presented in the project’s main publications.

A further important result that goes beyond the current common ground in research – and has important societal implications – concerns the scope of looking at literature as a mediated and material object. Admittedly, the notion that ‘materiality matters’ has already been well established in those areas of literary studies that are interested in questions of mediality and literature’s interactive potentials of reader engagement. The project work showed, however, that this notion still needs to be disseminated more broadly both in academic research and teaching as well as in contributions and events that cater to a broader public. Not least in our digital age, the increasing importance of training media competency in educational contexts and beyond requires that literary and media scholars highlight and communicate how media’s different materialities afford different ways of ‘making sense’ of their contents – and last but not least how the attribution of certain reader-roles contributes to our ways of seeing and thinking in ‘everyday’ life.
Profile picture of the MSCA Individual Fellow Dr. Natalia Igl