Encountering psychogeographical literary moments : readers’ affective enactment in contemporary british novels (2000-)

Tan, Kai Qing; Alber, Jan (Thesis advisor); Schneider, Ralf (Thesis advisor)

Aachen : RWTH Aachen University (2023)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2023


My dissertation "Encountering Psychogeographical Literary Moments: Readers’ Affective Enactment in Contemporary British Novels (2000-)" examines how embodied readers affectively enact fictional urban environments and the affordances mentioned through textual cues to make sense of the narratives and (what I coin) their psychogeographical literary moments (PLMs). Set in banal everyday life, such moments challenge the heteronormative speed and rhythm of urban space. Spaces involved are also either overlooked or hidden from plain sight due to the hustle and bustle of day-to-day activities. Foregrounding the infraordinary (Perec 1974; cf. Elkin 2017), PLMs encapsulate the anti-capitalist, pro-awareness ethos of the Situationists of the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, psychogeography underlines the environment-body-mind connection as it asks walkers to drift and sense urban places while raising questions about the signification of urban cues. Walkers are hence urged to creatively recontextualize urban signs, challenge naturalized embodied rhythms of the city, and imagine their own city narratives through psychogeography (Debord 1955; also Coverley 2006, Richardson 2015, and Löffler 2017).According to Robert Bond (2005), psychogeographical works (such as those by exemplary psychogeographer, Iain Sinclair) are social instruments that can be used to change societyʼs normalised beliefs and attitudes towards fellow city dwellers in the shared urban space. Similarly, PLMs, which encompass techniques such as ekphrasis to inflict temporal disordering and spur sudden deviations and recollections, accentuate the embodied interaction with urban environments and the deliberate sensing of affordances, as well as the psychogeographical tracing and rewriting of both the city and the self. As PLMs call attention to embodied reactions and affective responses to the environment, they influence readersʼ plot predictions and subsequently pique their awareness of their situatedness in real space.My dissertation makes use of concepts from second-generation cognitive approaches regarding experiential background and embodied resonances, reader predictions according to the Bayesian theorem, the feedback loop and affordances, and the dual perception of reading (cf. Caracciolo 2014; Kukkonen 2019, 2020; and Polvinen 2017, 2018). I also refer to Varela et al.ʼs idea of the embodied mind ([1992] 2016), Colombettiʼs affective enactivism (2014) and Gibsonʼs affordances (1979), to present a model of how readers affectively enact the built environments and affordances in PLMs to reach positive affective enactment (AffEn+) in the narrative space. Those who continue to experience negative affective enactment (AffEn-) will not be able to make sense of the narrative or make claims about larger themes of the text. Consequently, the reading process for the latter are also likely to break down; they would put the text down and move on to another activity/text. Moreover, I suggest that embodied readers imagine extra affordances in the narratives based on their personal experiential traces. Such additional affordances manifest in forms of recollections and descriptions of past events and real-world spaces that emulate and inform them on "what it is like" in the fictional urban space.I apply my model to the reading of PLMs from three contemporary British fiction: Satin Island (SI) by Tom McCarthy (2015), Care of Wooden Floors (CoWF) by Will Wiles (2012) and NW by Zadie Smith (2012). These novels touch on salient thematic features of contemporary British fiction such as the crossing of boundaries, the focus on peripheral spaces such as alleyways and the suburbs, and the giving of voice to new inhabitants (cf. Adiseshiah and Hildyard 2013; Colombino 2013; Hubble and Tew 2016; McNamara 2014; O’Gorman and Eaglestone 2019). To focus on how contemporary readers affectively enact narrative space, the selected texts are set in contemporaneous, realist city settings that emulate readers’ daily surroundings in the twenty-first century; their foregrounding of banal events and patterned actions in the storyworld can thus lead to the defamiliarization of similar real-world situations. Moreover, since contemporary British narratives privilege peripheral urban experiences that are both globalized and glocalized, the narratives of SI, CoWF and NW are set beyond the City to foreground multifaceted urban environments and realities in marginalized spaces (cf. Pope 2015 and Bouchet et al. 2022).Beyond my own intuitive readings of the texts, I also turn to empirical research to find out how other flesh-and-blood readers make sense PLMs. Given the assumption that psychogeographical works afford changes in real life, I thus present preliminary findings from a two-part qualitative survey with actual readers (i.e. one scaled down due to COVID-19 lockdowns and physical distancing). The first part of the survey aimed to find out how the participants made sense of selected PLMs (with distinct settings and ways of playing with urban signs) in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Ian McGregor (2002) and Smithʼs NW. The second part, which was conducted a month after the first part, asked the participants if they experienced changes due to their encounters with the PLMs and the texts in general. From the qualitative data, I identified themes and codes, and compared them with the following measurement scales for spatial experience and presence: the Transportation Scale by Green and Brock (2000), the Transportation Scale in Short Form by Appel et al. (2015), and the Spatial Presence Experience Scale by Hartmann et al. (2015). Through this comparison, I derived a draft of dimensions and items for a mixed-methods design for further research into how readers make sense of PLMs and narrative space in general. In addition, based on the readersʼ self-observation of changes after reading PLMs, I observed that through affective enactment and the feedback loop, they experienced real-world spaces anew and saw other city dwellers in a different light. However, frequent exposure to PLMs and the affective enactment thereof would be required to produce lasting effects.There are several outcomes and next steps to this project. One of the next steps is to work with city planners to enhance their affective enactment of fictional urban spaces so that they would recall the embodied sense-making processes of the actual users of space. This would, hopefully, drive urban design principles to include considerations of embodied cognition (cf. works of architects and urban critics such as Pallasmaa 1996, 2011; Mallgrave 2013, 2018; and Goldhagen 2017) instead of profits and foreign investors who neither reside in nor use the spaces that are constructed. Another next step is to use the empirical findings to produce new mappings of lived experiences based on diverse groups of readersʼ affective enaction of narrative spaces. Such mappings would record the senses, affordances, affective responses, as well as recollections of other real-life or fictional spaces that are part and parcel of the sense-making process. These maps can be used to underline intersection realities and diachronic changes that challenge the grand narratives that are encapsulated in formal mappings of cities and other spaces. It is thus with hope that this preliminary research on readersʼ affective enactment not only expands our understanding of spatial experience in narratives; this is also a first step to furthering undertakings with scholars from the associated disciplines so as to produce more enriched environments, ones that afford human agency and encourage acknowledge and equity amongst all peoples, in real life.


  • Chair of English Literary Studies [793110]