The Literary Frame

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

The Literary Frame

The authority of the frame is equivalent to that of the genre expectations which it establishes, and the internal structure of the text may either confirm this authority or react dynamically to it, or at the extreme it may break it. In all of these cases, structure is only made possible by the presence of the frame, as norm or restriction and as the conventional sign of a closure which separates the limitedness of the aesthetic object from the unlimitedness of its environment.10F As a limit, its importance lies precisely in this ambiguity of its threshold situation. Meyer Schapiro and Boris Uspensky both assign the frame of a painting to the space of the observer rather than the illusory three-dimensional space of representation, although Schapiro does concede that the frame may also function as a compositional device.11F Goffman, on the other hand, is fully aware of the ambivalence of its function. He distinguishes two levels of the frame: “One is the innermost layering, wherein dramatic activity can be at play to engross the participant. The other is the outermost lamination, the rim of the frame, as it were, which tells us just what sort of status in the real world the activity has, whatever the complexity of the inner laminations.”12F The frame of course is unitary, neither inside nor outside, and this distinction of levels must be seen as a convenient fiction to express the frame’s dual status as a component of structure and a component of situation. For a literary text, it works both as an enclosure of the internal fictional space and as an exclusion of the space of reality against which the work is set; but this operation of exclusion is also an inclusion of the text in this alien space. The text is closed and suspended, but as a constructional element the frame is internal to this closure, and through it the text signifies difference, signifies what it excludes. Within the field of vision are included both the aesthetic space and the edge of aesthetic space. The extra-aesthetic is manifested negatively at this moment of passage, where the text reaches the limit and starts to become nontext. The energy of the frame thus radiates in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, it conducts the “trace” of the excluded nonaesthetic area inwards, so that the delimited space of the text is structured by its limit and becomes significant because of the selection operated by the frame. Thus the compositional structure of a painting – its perspective, the play of vectors, the foregrounding and backgrounding of motifs – is defined by the relation to the vertical and horizontal lines of the “edge,” and these are not simply the farthest points to which the painting reaches, but are rather the dynamic moments which constitute the system and the semantic richness of the painting; similarly, the margin around a poem is not an empty support of the printed text but actively breaks the poem off from its continuity with everyday life, suspending the line in arbitrary rhythmic or typographic lengths and isolating the poetic flower as l’absente de tous bouquets; and the end of a narrative shapes the plot, not as a static sequence of events but as a teleologically structured movement which characterizes the time of the text as a significant time in relation to the nonsignificant time against which it is set and from which it differentiates itself.13F On the other hand, the frame situates the work within nonaesthetic space and thus transforms it into a function. The text is “quoted” by and within its context – the context of a particular kind of speech situation. This situation is variable: a text may be situated in the “normal” space of an aesthetic function indicated by its frame (e.g., a play may be staged as an aesthetic object), or the frame may be ignored and the text “quoted” to nonaesthetic ends (the text of the play may serve as a moral or sociological example, or the play may be staged as a historical curiosity so that it becomes a citation in a larger written or unwritten text). The frame signifies only the norm (the text as an aesthetic object and the normative expectations governing the reception of this object); as a sign of a conventionally guaranteed use of the text it cannot account for deviant functions, i.e., for uses of the text which choose to ignore this norm.
But the mere fact of the convergence of the internal structure and the contextual function of the text at the “edge” of the text indicates that the frame does not simply separate an outside from an inside but mediates between the two. This is not to posit a constant relation between two constant factors but to indicate the way in which changes in the context of reception of a work alter the kinds of expectation governed by the frame and are thus translated into structural shifts in the work; and, conversely, the way in which structural changes (i.e., new interpretations of a work) become institutionalized as changes in the norm signified by the frame and so gradually alter the situation of the work in its context. In this dialectic, the frame internalizes the “external” function of the text. Attention to the frame, not as physical border but as the conventionally regulated index of a demarcation, should perhaps lead us to think in terms of the mediations between “intrinsic” structure and “extrinsic” function, but the precondition for this would be a conception of the text as a “play” of forces which is constantly restructured (reinterpreted) as its relation to the frame (to the historically shifting conventions which establish it as an aesthetic object and through which it is “seen”) changes. The drama, where the frame is manifested largely as a visible architectural border and where genre expectations can be closely correlated with the material fact (at least in the long term), provides a particularly clear example of this. The change from the projecting Elizabethan stage to the pictorial space of the proscenium arch both corresponds to and reinforces a radically different kind of speech situation in which the whole nature of the scenic illusion is modified. The alteration of the frame, in direct relation to modifications in the literary system (to the distance and the closed rigidity of frame characteristic of a neoclassical system), alters the nature of dramatic reality (the nature of the fictional space), and this is illustrated in exemplary fashion by modifications in the aesthetic object itself (modifications in interpretation of existing plays: for example of Shakespeare through new canons of performance [Tate’s Lear] or through editorial restructuring of the texts; and in the production of new texts: e.g., the change between Antony and Cleopatra and All for Love).
As the index of a conventional mode of appropriation of reality, the frame thus corresponds roughly to what George Kubler calls the frame thus corresponds roughly to what George Kubler calls the “self-signal” of a work,14F its signification of itself as a function with a differential relation to reality. But the difficulty of coping with the concept of frame is the near-invisibility of the frame. We have been taught to naturalize the artificial space of the aesthetic object, to lose ourselves in an inside which is as unlimited as the world,15F and this means that our “natural” inclination is to see the work in the same way we see the world, without awareness of the edge of our eyes’ scan. The white margin around a poem, the beginning and end of reading, the darkness around the stage disappear as we focus on the presence of the text; they become an unapprehended negativity. And in fact the frame is an absence insofar as it is a purely relational moment, the point of crystallization of the normative conventions of reception; like the nonexistent meridian line dividing night from morning, it exists only as a sign of difference, and without a special act of attention it is blotted out by the quasi-substantiality of its content. To “see” the frame is to account for the culturally determined vraisemblance by which the conventions determining the reception of the work are naturalized, become second nature; and the full social dimension of the literary sign can only be restored through a deliberate reconstruction of these conventions.

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11. Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition, p. 143; Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art,” p. 227.
12. Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 82.
13. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 46.
14. George Kubler, The Shape of Time (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 24.
15. Although it is also true that much of the defamiliarizing effort of modernist art has been directed to a foregrounding of the frame, to stressing the arbitrariness of the limit of the work: cf. Degas’s Tête-à-tête diner, where the frame cuts off half of the man’s face, or Godard’s technique of having his characters walk casually in and out of a “badly composed” frame.

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