Workshop "Reader Engagement, Joint Engagement, and New Materialism"

Including a public lecture at Litteraturhuset by Prof Vera Tobin (CWRU Cleveland, USA)

organized by Natalia Igl & Karin Kukkonen | ILOS

This 2-day workshop is aimed at researchers interested in questions of how literary texts engage their readers and what role the socio-cognitive phenomenon of ‘joint attention’ plays at that. Against the backdrop of the turn toward a ‘new materialism’ in literary studies, the workshop welcomes contributions on texts of different genres that make use of literature’s material, performative, and multisensory qualities to – sometimes radically – engage their readers.


How do readers engage with literature?

Research on how readers engage with literature has shown that readers can be ‘absorbed’ by and ‘transported’ into storyworlds and fictional spaces. The interplay of textual visualization strategies and mental imagery (see e.g. Kuzmičová 2014) can make readers feel highly engaged by a text and evoke an experience of ‘being there’. Apart from the phenomenon of mental imagery, however, literature can also put readers in a position of actual observers and inter-actors by foregrounding the materiality of printed media, the performative potential of the written text, and the multi-sensory receptivity of the embodied reader. As a case in point, the workshop looks into the increasing tendency since the turn of the millennium to present the printed novel as a material and multimedial artifact (see e.g. Gibbons 2012). By playing on the materiality of the book and functionalizing images and visual forms as an integral part of the narrative, so-called multimodal novels such as J.J. Abrams and Dough Dorst’s S – Ship of Theseus (2013) challenge the boundaries of literary storytelling. 


Joining ‘materialist’ and cognitive approaches to literature: ‘Joint attention’ as a crucial notion 

The more recent claim to take into account “the power of matter and the ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences” (Coole & Frost 2010: 1) also put forth a perspectival shift toward a ‘new materialism’ in literary theory. Bringing together the materialist and the cognitive perspective, the workshop focuses on the notion of ‘joint attention’ as a highly fruitful but yet underrated addition to the existing analytical tool-kit. The term refers to “the ability to share attention to some object with another person and mutually recognize that the attention is shared” (Tobin 2010: 185). As a basic phenomenon regarding the ways we process and socially interact within our material environment, joint attention also plays a crucial role in how we engage with literature. Vice versa, the phenomenon of joint attention can explain how literary texts utilize our socio-cognitive dispositions to engage readers in complex though processes, (self-)observations and emotions.

Against this backdrop, the workshop will look into phenomena of (simulated) joint attention to understand how the interplay of textual strategies and cognitive principles enables intensive forms of reader engagement – particularly with regard to the current turn toward materiality.


Cited literature

Coole, Diana & Samantha Frost (2010): Introducing the New Materialism. In: Diana Coole & Samantha Frost (eds.), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics . Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1-43.

Gibbons, Alison (2012): Multimodal Literature and Experimentation. In: Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons & Brian McHale (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature . New York & London: Routledge, 420-434.

Kuzmičová, Anežka (2014): Literary Narrative and Mental Imagery: A View from Embodied Cognition. Style  48.3,275-293.

Tobin, Vera (2010): Joint attention, To the Lighthouse , and Modernist Representations of Intersubjectivity. English Text Construction 3.2, 185-202.


Workshop format and guest speaker

As a joint event of the “Literature, Cognition and Emotions” research group and the research project “Readers as Observers”, the workshop invites contributions from colleagues interested in the interfaces of cognitive science, psychology, and literary studies. We particularly invite postdoctoral researchers and PhD candidates to participate and share their current research. Beside the format of short presentations (ca. 20 minutes) the workshop will also include sessions that allow for a more general discussion regarding questions of materiality, performativity, embodied cognition, and reader engagement.

Our invited guest speaker Vera Tobin, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, USA) will share her expertise on phenomena of simulated joint attention in narratives. She will also give a talk at the House of Literature on her new book Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press 2018) that sheds light on how our cognitive biases and our readiness for joint attention are being used in storytelling to create suspense and lead us astray.


How to participate

To participate in the workshop, please send a short abstract (app. 250 words) of your suggested presentation to Natalia Igl, A short reading list for the planned discussion sessions will be distributed in advance.

Deadline for abstracts: 20 January 2019


Preliminary program

Wednesday 27 February

10.00-15.00: Presentations and discussion session. Lunch will be provided by ILOS.

18.00-20.00: Public lecture by Prof. Vera Tobin at Litteraturhuset

The public lecture will be followed by a joint dinner (provided by ILOS) for all workshop participants at a nearby restaurant.


Thursday 28 February

10.00-15.00: Presentations and discussion session. Lunch will be provided by ILOS.

The detailed program will be provided as early as possible.

Published Dec. 18, 2018 12:42 PM - Last modified Dec. 18, 2018 12:58 PM