Varieties of Absorption in Narrative and Aesthetic Experiences
A Comparative Study of Responses to Literature and Film
Applicant: Dr Frank Hakemulder
Duration: September 2010 – August 2014
More information: detailed project description (pdf)
How do we get lost in a book or a movie?
As a phenomenon absorption knows both proponents and opponents in the practical field of narrative creation and reception. Writers of political messages and advertisements have made good use of its persuasive effects. At the same time, societal concerns are raised about the potentially harmful impact of narratives specially created in order to confuse its audience as to what is real, lure them into adopting certain attitudes, or take particular ideological positions for granted (Appel 2008). In addition, concerns are expressed regarding a lack of the kinds of narratives that can make readers more critical and self-aware.
So far, however, claims about societal effects of narrative absorption, whether positive or negative, cannot be scientifically evaluated. In part this is due to the absence of empirical research on the mechanisms that underlie absorption (Bilandzic and Kinnebrock 2009).
This research project will present a taxonomy of absorption-like experiential states. It will identify narrative features responsible for these states in two different media, film and literature. It will explore personality traits of viewers and readers that are relevant in bringing about absorption. And it will clarify relationships between narrative absorption and aesthetic experiences and their after effects. Accordingly our leading research question is: What is the role of absorption in aesthetic and other responses to literary and cinematic narratives?
To answer this question, the current project innovatively unites empirical research with methodologies that are typical in the Humanities (i.e., text-analytic approaches to narrative; theoretical concerns about aesthetic responses; comparative media studies). In addition, through collaboration with creative partners (e.g., authors, film directors), we intend to shape our materials in order to precisely match our research goals and create cohesion between the different subprojects.
The scholarly relevance of our research lies predominantly in providing the Humanities with an empirically founded understanding of narrative impact and the factors that influence it. The project offers essential contributions to the accumulating insights of social scientists concerning the role of absorption in narrative effects (e.g., attitude and belief change). We envision two major practical applications of our results. One is to solidify the knowledge base of media literacy training, which in this increasingly mediated culture is now more important than ever. The other is that creative storytellers (e.g., involved in storytelling in marketing and management) are provided with directives regarding ways in which textual features relate to particular types of (aesthetic) responses, including finding stories captivating. All of these are themes of interest to other absorbing media as well, most importantly perhaps games and other virtual reality media, as their user population is expanding so rapidly and pervasively. On a more general cultural note, a better understanding of the nature and origin of absorption and other related phenomena is crucial for deploying aesthetic antidotes to superficial entertainment.