The Literary Frame

/, Essays, Blesok no. 55/The Literary Frame

The Literary Frame

The function of the aesthetic closure which marks off literary space is to establish the particular historical distribution of the “real” and the “symbolic” within which the text operates. The border of the text constitutes and defines its specific fictional status1F and the kinds of use to which it can be put. This border is therefore in one sense an immaterial system of expectational norms. But I will argue that it is also always materially embodied and should not be conceived simply as a mental projection; in Erving Goffman’s words, “A cup can be filled from any realm, but the handle belongs to the realm that qualifies as reality.”2F
I shall use the term frame to designate this limit, at once material and immaterial, literal and figurative, between adjacent and dissimilar onto-logical realms. The frame can be anything that acts as a sign of a qualitative difference, a sign of the boundary between a marked and an unmarked space. If this definition seems tautological, it is because since Mauss and, in a different way, since Duchamp we know that the aesthetic space is not an anthropological constant but is constituted by a cultural recognition: the toilet scat hung in a museum is an aesthetic object because the museum sanctions its situation as aesthetic.
Every aesthetic object or process has a frame or frames peculiar to it. Since the frame is not simply a material fact, it can be multiple – the frame of a painting, for example, may be reinforced by the broader frame of the museum – and we could think of the “edge” of the work as a series of concentric waves in which the aesthetic space is enclosed. Theatrical space is defined by the borders of the stage and by the theater situation (the relation of the auditorium to the stage and the convention that the space of the stage is a privileged space of illusion).3F Cinematic space is defined by the screen—by the darkness that surrounds the screen, by the projection apparatus, by the theater situation, and by advertisements and billings which have created expectations that this is a movie and that it is a particular kind of movie; but there is also an internal frame, the title sequence, which supplements and narrows down the predefinition of the kind of aesthetic space being presented. For a literary text the frame is particularly complex: it is made up, first of all, of the covers of a book or the lines enclosing a poem in a journal (or by a recitation or reading situation) ; of the title pages, specifying genre expectations and the expectations created by the date, by the author’s name, by dedicatory material, by the title, and perhaps by the publishing house.4F Texts which have a special legitimacy often display special framing effects such as that of a collected or standard edition, editorial exegesis (which may frame individual pages), an introduction stressing the canonic status of the text, or expensive binding (corresponding to “the salient and richly ornamented enclosures that once … conveyed the idea of the preciousness of the work through its gilded mount”).5F On a general scale, they are framed by the publishing apparatus and by their position within the literary system. A poem is usually framed, at a more intensive level, by the white margin that marks off line lengths (and this margin can be stressed in particular ways, as in the calligrams of Herbert or Apollinaire or the attentive dispersal of the lines over the page of Un coup de dès). For a narrative, the most intensive frame is that constituted by the beginning and, especially, the end of the narration. Jurij Lotman has constructed a typology of narrative modes on the basis of a distinction between those texts (e.g., myths, medieval chronicles) which emphasize origins and those, like the novel; which emphasize ends. The beginning of a text is governed by the modelling of causality, whereas the end stresses goals,6F and this would seem to be a valuable way of linking plot structure to the “edge” of the text, the point at which the text passes into, and is closed off from, nonaesthetic space. The beginning of a text, finally, is the point at which the distancing between author and narrator usually occurs; the fourfold frame in which Scott encloses Heart of Midlothian, for example, sets up a succession of redundant narrators in a strangely hesitant development of the narration which will be more fully exploited later in the century. This distancing, like that effected by a prologue and epilogue, both reinforces the difference between the realm of narration and the realm of the narrated and eases the reader into the fictive world, sparing him the abruptness of a sudden passage.
The frame holds literary discourse in a kind of suspension such that the framed word is. in Mikhail Bakhtin’s terminology, a “represented word”: the word represents itself, cites itself as a fictive word, a word which cannot be accepted directly.7F It is in this sense (a sense which does not depend on a positivistic notion of “truth”) that we could adopt I. A. Richards’s concept of literary discourse as pseudostatement.8F Bracketed discourse is fictional to the extent that it handles consciously as unrealities the unrealities, the mythical patterns and codes, which ideology deals in unconsciously. By delineating aesthetic space as an “unreal” space (an “imaginary garden with real toads in it”), the frame both neutralizes direct referentiality and calls attention to the concentration of meaning within this space: the absence of immediate meaning creates an expectation of total meaning. The tendency of bracketed discourse is, then, to a universality of connotation, although particular genres will attempt to play this down as much as possible. And since the frame has the force of law, it is impossible to break the fictionality of a genre through a simple change of intention—for example, through a politicization of its themes. Unless the function of the genre is radically altered,9F the introduction of political elements will lead, not to an “activation” of the work, but to a formalization and neutralization of the political thematic.

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1. Boris Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition, trans. V. Zavarin and S. Wittig (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 140.
2. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 249.
3. Ibid., pp. 124-25.
4. Cf. Christopher Logue’s accentuation of this most unnoticed of frames in New Numbers. The flyleaf begins: This book was written in order to change the world and published at 12/ – (softback), 25/ – (hardback) by Cape of 30 Bedford Square, London WC1 (a building formerly occupied by the Czarist Embassy) in 1969. It is generously scattered with dirty words particularly on pages 9, 31, 37 and 45 and was written by © Logue a sexy young girl living among corrupted villagers…
5. Meyer Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs,” Semiotica 1, no. 3 (1969): 227-28.
6. Jurij Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text, trans. R. Vroon, Michigan Slavic Contributions no. 7 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977), pp. 212-13; but cf. also Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
7. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. R. Rotsel (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1973), p. 154.
8. I. A. Richards, Poetries and Sciences: A Reissue of “Science and Poetry” (1926, 1935) with Commentary (New York: Norton, 1970), p. 60.
9. As usually happens when the technical basis of a genre is altered, or as happens in Bertolt Brecht’s Lebrstücke, where the frame situation of the spectator is abolished.
10. Lotman. The Structure of the Artistic Text, p. 210: note, however, Goffman’s caution (Frame Analysis, p. 46) that “keying,” the modulation to a secondary framework, is a shift not from the unframed to the framed but from the imperceptible primary frame of everyday experience to a perceptible secondary frame.

AuthorJohn Frow
2018-08-21T17:23:07+00:00 August 3rd, 2007|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 55|0 Comments