Jan Alber (Aachen): A Cognitive Approach to Narrative Immersion in Film


Monday, May 08, 2017, 4:00pm


In the Experientiality of Narrative, Marco Caracciolo argues that narratives do not represent the experiences of characters as autonomous or object-like entities. Rather, recipients enact these experiences by running embodied simulations, so-called "enactment imaginations," of them. We create and at the same time relate to these experiences on the basis of what Caracciolo calls the "experiential background." The resulting "enactment imaginations" do not only involve mental processes but also an "experiential feel," which concerns the question of what it is like to have an experience. Caracciolo thus reconceptualizes the process of immersion, i.e., the phenomenon that recipients are transported into or get carried away by narratives, from an enactivist perspective. As he explains, "the main thrust of enactivism is that experience, far from being the computational process whereby we construct an internal model of the environment, is an embodied, evaluative exploration of the world" (2014: 97).

However, Caracciolo has surprisingly little to say about the specific dynamics whereby recipients project themselves into storyworlds. What exactly happens when we relate our experiential backgrounds to our enactment imaginations? And are there different ways of doing this? Furthermore, he remains vague with regard to the identification of expressive devices that are especially effective at eliciting experiential responses from recipients by tapping into their experiential background.

This talk will try to fill these two gaps left open by Caracciolo's book. First, I want to shed new light on the question of what happens when we immerse ourselves in fictional storyworlds by arguing that recipients blend their self-schemata with the narrative's central experiencer. Second, by looking at film examples that involve internal focalization, I want to demonstrate that certain textual cues are particularly effective at activating our experiential backgrounds and thus at drawing us into narrative worlds.


About Jan Alber

Jan Alber is Professor of English Literature and Cognition at RWTH Aachen University. He is the author of Narrating the Prison (Cambria Press, 2007) and Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Alber received fellowships and research grants from the British Academy, the German Research Foundation, and the Humboldt Foundation. In 2013, the German Association of University Teachers of English awarded him the prize for the best Habilitation written between 2011 and 2013. Between 2014 and 2016, he worked as a COFUND (Marie-Curie) Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark. Alber is President of the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN).

This is Jan Alber's inaugural lecture at RWTH Aachen University.