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Frame Theory

miércoles, 26 de septiembre de 2012

Frame Theory

Frame theory has many antecedents in literature and critical thought, but it was explicitly developed by Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffman in the second half of the 20th century. It is very useful to account for any kind of phenomena in semiotics and in social life, but it is especially relevant to the analysis of literature and of performance.

According to frame theory, we structure reality in frames—that is, in groups of signs that "go together", big composite structures of signs which have a clear border, a frame, separating them from other sign structures. Frames are useful therefore to organize signs, to allow our mind to process a number of signs as having something in common, and to isolate chunks of reality from one another. As such, frames also serve to organize the structure of reality, and to make it manageable: we can easily move frames around, transform them, open and close them. We can recycle one frame in one context and apply it to another.

frameFrames organize social life and activities. For instance, in engaging in a coordinated activity, we open up a frame, and we behave accordingly: we focus our attention on the elements of the frame, and temporarily we disattend things that fall outside the frame.

An example: a class is a frame. It is a shared activity with delimited borderlines, in time and space. It has rules and conventions of its own, we assume specific roles when we are in class.  Notice that architecture also helps: a classroom helps to isolate the frame of the class, it gives it architectural coherence so to speak, and prevents interruptions from other coordinated activities (other classes, people engaging in social conversation, etc.). A class is a piece of socially structured reality, a conventional reality if you want, which we attend more or less to while we are engaged in it. Many other examples from work may come to mind: a meal in a restaurant, a social encounter with a friend in the street, the interaction between the shop assistant and the customers in a shop, etc. Frames are a handy way to understand and organize how social activities are carried out and coordinated.

Now, literature and drama are one such social activity. Even if we speak of solitary reading, the reader is interacting with a text. Reading requires disattending in part the physical world around you and opening up a frame in the middle of it—the frame we may identify with the work. A dream is of course a frame in our reality, and perhaps our oldest experience of virtual reality. A literary work is partly like a dream in this sense: a technology of virtual reality, through the use of language, texts, and frames of discourse. A literary work, a poem, a narrative, is a frame which opens in our reality and allows the presence, or the embedding, of a different reality while we read the work. Reality is suspended for the time being, and we are transported to Middlemarch, or to Robinson Crusoe's island, or to ancient Rome. We attend the represented speech of virtual characters, and we reconstruct the virtual world of the book thanks to our imagination, the speech of the characters, and the narrative discourse of the authorial voice.

The occasion for the literary frame may be solitary reading, or some kind of communal interaction: for instance, recitation by a poet or a storyteller. In this case the frame opens up within a social encounter, an event. Something similar happens in the case of drama: the oral performance of literature is already half dramatic. A narrative opens up a space of imagined reality, different from the here-and-now, but this imagined reality may become much more immersive if it becomes multimedia—I am not speaking of videogames here, but of the first multimedia experience in virtual reality—drama.

Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis (1974) is the most elaborate discussion of frame theory in all aspects of social life, including drama. Goffman often discusses drama, which is an important analogy of social life in his theory, but we shall not go further into his analysis in that book. It is a book which must be read by those who want a deeper insight into the nature of reality, but it would require a course in itself. We shall examine, though, his dramatistic theory of social behaviour as expounded in an earlier book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

There are several important elements to take into account in frame analysis:

1) the establishing of frames: the kind of framing which is established to separate one frame from another, the "material" used to delimit the border of the frame, and the ways in which framing is sustained.

2) The formal structuring of frames relative to each other: i. e. whether they coexist on different planes, whether one is contained by another, whether they are sequential….

3) The managing of frames—how initial assumptions about framing change along with the experience of the frames. For instance, how a piece of experience which seemed to be lacking a frame is shown to be contained by a frame which appears retrospectively, retroactively "reframing" the whole.

4) The transformations of frames: how frames may be "keyed" to use Goffman's vocabulary. For instance, in drama, a performance may be a "serious" performance or a rehearsal. Keyings are a way to organize a new aspect of experience by transforming or reusing an existing frame.

5) Frame-breaking.  It is essential to establish and separate frames, and it is also essential to know when and how to break them. Depending on the kind of activity and of frame there may be many ways of breaking frame—but let us use as an instance the most obvious one, the image stepping outside of the picture and becoming real, crossing the frame which seemed to contain it.

6) Related to frame-breaking, but really a different issue: interferences between frames. For instance, the way a framed  section of experience is altered in subtle ways by the very fact that it is framed: the image which adapts itself to its frame, in painting or photography—or the dialogue in drama which is not "natural" because the characters are not really speaking only to one another, they are also speaking for the benefit of an audience whose presence they ignore.

 Goffman: La realidad como expectativa autocumplida

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