- Storyworld Possible Selves and the Phenomenon of Narrative Immersion: Testing a New Theoretical Construct1
Something mystifying about narrative engagement, be it with novels, plays, video games, or films, is that it does not work in the same way for any two readers, audience members, or players. Each of us undergoes the narrative experience as a personally relevant enterprise that differs from individual to individual. Why do some readers find certain narratives extraordinarily relevant, while others feel indifferent about them? Why do readers find great pleasure in a narrative that years before they discarded unfinished? Or, conversely, why do people sometimes wonder at the features of a past self who could find pleasure and self-transformative potential in a narrative that their present self cannot feel carried away by at all? These are some of the questions that my article sets out to answer.
Recent contributions by the cognitive sciences to narrative theory, such as possible worlds theory, deictic shift theory, and neuro-psychological research into empathic responses, have paved the way for fresh approaches to the long-pursued issue of reader involvement in the narrative experience. This paper will discuss how, by combining these cognitive milestones with blending theory (Fauconnier and Turner), it may be possible to move one step forward in our understanding of the dynamics whereby individual narrative experiencers project themselves into storyworlds, a move necessary for literary appreciation and artistically motivated self-transformation.
Immersion is an intuitively accurate description for what is required in narrative appreciation. The most extensively used metaphors expressing this phenomenon match narrative engagement with being “transported” or “carried away”—the READING [End Page 110] IS A JOURNEY metaphor; with being “gripped” or “engaged”—the READING IS CONTROL metaphor; and with “reward” and “value satisfaction”—the READING IS INVESTMENT metaphor (Gerrig; Stockwell). The use of these embodied metaphors, however, is just an indicator of the difficulty in explaining what narrative involvement amounts to. Some controversial issues actually seem to challenge existing theoretical paradigms, and all of them include vague references to crossings of ontological boundaries separating factuality from fictionality.
First I will review some of these controversies. Then I will briefly revise the notions of conceptual blending and of character construction. I will also review the psychological notion of the self-concept, with its constituent self-schemas (Markus) and possible selves (Markus and Nurius), and introduce the notion of storyworld possible self. The study will discuss the possibility of establishing analogical matches between readers’ self-schemas and focalizers’ character constructs within a blending paradigm yielding storyworld possible selves, or mental projections of readers inside the fictional world. As theoretical constructs, storyworld possible selves may be used both in the disambiguation of discourse reference and in the understanding of attention priming, empathic attachment, and emotional involvement in narratives.
Narratives are here understood in the broad experiential sense advocated in cognitive narratology, according to which narrativity is seen as “the result of cognitive activity rather than as a quality of verbal texts” (Olson 15). This view includes multi-modal and transgeneric instances like films, drama, songs, or video games, and does not restrict the narrative experience to readers alone, extending it to viewers, listeners, or players. Although the discussion will use the notion of focalizers in written fictional narratives, storyworld possible selves should not be restricted to readers only, but to narrative experiencers at large.
Theory Gaps and Reader Immersion
The feelings of immersion that readers experience can easily be captured by metaphorical language, as shown above, but cannot as easily be pinned down by theoretical paradigms. Some of the prickliest issues have to do with a) the ontological structure of narrative discourse and its levels of representation; b) psychological and neuro-psychological descriptions of blurrings of the self in interactive simulation environments; c) the metonymic nature of narrative immersion, as it is not the whole entity that is transported, but just a part of it; and d) ambiguous reference tokens in narrative discourse, like doubly-deictic you. Let us consider each of these in more detail.
Discourse Structure, Levels of Existence, and Metalepses
The analysis of narrative discourse as an instance of a communicative situation (Chatman 31; Onega and...