Beyond Immersion: Absorption, Saturation, and Overflow in the Building of Imaginary Worlds

Stenson, Edmund

Mark Wolf provided a lucid overview of four key terms - Immersion, Absorption, Saturation and Overflow - so as to develop an account of the manner in which worlds are built, sustained, and developed by both producers and consumers.

Following initial immersion - in which the audience enters the story world - comes absorption. Drawing on Norman Holland’s account of Attention and limited energy, Wolf suggested that at this point, primary perceptual data becomes replaced by the secondary perceptual data of a particular fictional world. This is a two way process in which, on the one hand, the world is created in the audience’s mind, and on the other, the audience is transported into a particular fictional world.

Thirdly, we have saturation – the pleasurable goal of conceptual immersion – in which the audience concentrate fully on the text and give it their full attention. Wolf gave several examples of how this might translate in practice: Tolkien’s Simarillion, in which one can read about all the characters that have inhabited the world of Lord of the Rings, or the Star Wars Holocron, a database in which a vast amount of data is stored on the Star Wars franchise.

Lastly, Wolf discussed Overflow. This occurs when the audience is given more world information than they can store. If this information is integral to the comprehension of the story, then the audience become confused, though if it is not, they have the capacity to “chunk” the information – a term borrowed from psychology – into larger units. In an attempt to rescue the individual from what seems like a top-down totality, Wolf clarified his deployment of “chunking”, arguing that it is not as simple new data replacing old data: different audiences have different expectations and desires and so process narrative excess as they see fit. This overflow, Wolf argues, can enrich the audience’s experience, as it encourages return visits, and at the same time conceals cracks and fissures in the story world: how can we carry out a logical analysis if we are overburdened with information?

All this work on overflow allows Wolf to argue for – or at least speculate on – the validity of ancillary reference material: these texts clarify, answer questions, and verify speculations on the nature of particular fictional worlds. In maintaining a somewhat quantitative approach to world building – in which participatory culture seems to consist solely in the accumulation of information – I felt that, as one conference attendee pointed out, Wolf's presentation was missing a qualitative account of world-building. Might there be ways in which non-rational models of subjecthood – those which do not argue, say that, viewers seek to rationalize worlds and save original creators from inconsistencies - models that emphasize affect, might account for world building? What relation does affect have for the building and maintenance of particular worlds? Might there be more emotional reasons as to why we return, something that goes beyond the need fit the puzzle together?

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