Academic journal article New Formations

On the Materiality of Contemporary Reading Formations: The Case of Jari Tervo's Layla

Academic journal article New Formations

On the Materiality of Contemporary Reading Formations: The Case of Jari Tervo's Layla

Article excerpt

In 1983 Tony Bennett made a theoretical intervention that he later framed as an attempt to ease the tension between poststructuralism and Marxism in the field of literary criticism. (1) According to Bennett, the object of literary theory and criticism should not be texts but something he called 'reading formations'. By a reading formation he meant

   a set of discursive and inter-textual determinations which organize
   and animate the practice of reading, connecting texts and readers
   in specific relations to one another in constituting readers as
   reading subjects of particular types and texts as
   objects-to-be-read in particular ways. (2)

According to Bennett, readers productively activate the texts they read (as poststructuralists more generally had suggested), but this always takes place inside a reading formation that structures the interaction between the texts and their readers. This is most notably the case with popular literature and, according to Bennett, this should form the main object of research, so that the 'analysis must start with the determinations that organize the social relations of popular reading'. (3)

In this essay, I engage with the question of how to study the reading formations of the twenty-first century. I approach Bennett's project by using a perspective that pays particular attention to the roles materiality and technology play in the reading formations of contemporary popular literature. In recent decades, the focus of both cultural production and cultural theory has moved from print towards digital production and reception. This new cultural ecosystem rests on connections, networks and relationships or links between different fragments of information. Consequently, the digital revolution seems to have created new kinds of formations which older cultural forms, such as literature, must now navigate. As a result of this, the sets 'of discursive and inter-textual determinations which organize and animate the practice of reading' have both changed and acquired new relevance. (4)

These broader changes and technological developments have been accompanied by a new interest in materiality, technology and material practices. Some say that the so-called linguistic turn has been followed, and if not entirely substituted then at least supplemented, by a 'material turn'. (5) One body of theory that has contributed to this 'turn' has been 'actor-network theory' (ANT). My intention in this essay is to use some of the insights offered by actor-network theory and apply them to the analysis of a Finnish popular novel, Layla, and the reading formations around it. (6) I describe, in particular, how the commentaries made on Layla found varying material supports and circulated, interacted or corresponded with the messages that were disseminated by the publisher. In so doing, I investigate how they together constructed a powerful reading formation inside of which the readers of Layla had to navigate in order to negotiate meanings. (7) Consequently, my concern in this essay is to find and test empirical means by which to study twenty-first century reading formations, 'the specific determinations that mould and structure popular reading' in their full materiality. (8) I start this argument by introducing the idea of Layla as an actor-network.

LAYLA AS AN ACTOR-NETWORK

Written by a famous Finnish author, Jari Tervo, and published in 2011, Layla was for several months the best selling fiction book in Finland. (9) It describes the intersecting paths of Finnish individuals, a Kurdish family, and a German family, who are all, in one way or another, involved in prostitution or human trafficking. I have chosen to analyse Layla because it is above all a popular trade book. As a popular book with a topical theme it can demonstrate forcefully how the reading formations of twenty-first century popular fiction may operate. Moreover, Layla is a good testing ground for research on the materiality of reading formations because it does not, in any particular way, draw attention to its material dimensions. …

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