frame (2)

While the current definition of “frame” covers many important facets of frames and framing, it doesn’t fully consider the act of framing as a way of defining genre and the full impact that the frame has on the way that a medium is experienced. To this end I will focus on expanding contextual range of the term to consider paratext, the bidirectionality of the frame, and the relationship between frame and genre. This development of the keyword will speak both to the framing of media and the frame itself as a particular media. The previous entry on “frame” has carefully considered the etymology and several definitions of “frame” applicable to media theory. One additional definition of “frame” according to the OED is “to shape, give shape to; to fashion, to form,” as well as “to shape, direct (one’s thoughts, actions, powers, etc.) to a certain purpose” and the approach I will take to “frame” will work off of this definition of a frame as something that fundamentally changes the form or perceived form of its enclosed object. This definition of the frame is close to but not quite a synonym for context, the circumstances that form the setting for an event or object. A frame is a very specific, very immediate kind of context that’s bonded directly to the object itself and delineates important literal and figurative borders of a work.

To begin an inquiry into framing and genre, a few descriptions of the frame not currently included in the keywords definition will be very useful. These have been created by theorists in fields from literary studies to anthropology that seek to understand the way that people come to terms with how information is presented. The ones most useful to the study of the frame as a generic device of signification come from Gregory Bateson and George Kubler, both anthropologists/communication theorists who studied the way that the human mind uses frameworks to classify and understand the world. Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, uses an analogy of both the picture frame and of the mathematical set in order to come to terms with what frames do. The picture frame analogy he employs has been explored in the current keyword definition of “frame.” Of the use of the mathematical set theory, Bateson argues

In set theory the mathematicians have developed axioms and theorems to discuss with rigor the logical implications of membership in overlapping categories or “sets.” The relationships between sets are commonly illustrated by diagrams…. illustrat[ing] a topological approach to the logic of classification. The first step in defining a psychological frame might be to say that it is (or delimits) a class or set of messages (or meaningful actions). The play of two individuals on a certain occasion would then be defined as the set of all messages exchanged by them within a limited period of time and modified by the paradoxical premise system. (Bateson, 186)

Bateson relates frames to premises that determine what sort of thinking and behavior we use in any given situation—Bateson gives the “play frame,” for example, which marks how seriously and sincerely behavior should be taken. George Kubler’s notion of the “self-signal” of a work, for example the handle of a hammer signifying where the tool should be held and how it should be used, supplements Bateson’s ideas about the framing of experience and anticipates contemporary genre theory.

The authority of the frame is equivalent to that of the genre expectations that it establishes, whose structure is only made possible by the presence of the frame. John Frow, a genre and literary theorist, takes up Bateman and Kubler in “The Literary Frame,” arguing that the frame holds literary discourse in a kind of suspension such that the framed world is, to quote Bakhtin, a “represented world.” An important concept that comes with thinking about framing is that of metacommunications; frames specify how to use a text or image and what to do if these expectations are not confirmed (for example, how to switch to another generic framework). In other words, the way that something is framed offers cues providing instruction on how to use the medium, and these cues that alert us to what the medium is doing are references to the generic frame.

Roland Barthes, in “The Rhetoric of the Image,” explains this phenomenon through semiotics, using an example from the visual media of advertising. He points to the linguistic message accompanying an advertised image that anchors the image of the product advertised. Barthes describes how the denoted, explicit message guides the reading of the connoted image of the advertisement, where the connotation system through the process of framing: “in the total image [the connotators] constitute discontinuous or better still scattered traits…. there always remaining in the discourse a certain denotation without which, precisely, the discourse would not be possible” (Barthes, 50). To give an example from literature, a paperback book with a picture of a magnifying glass and drops of blood would signify “murder mystery,” a frame that helps guide the reader in how to interpret the text (so that an old woman dying on the first page of the book would be read very differently than if the novel were framed as a more literary text). Frames often work to classify and define the possible uses and use values that an image or text may have. While in my example I have departed from a purely literal frame such as the classic picture frame, one can imagine that a painting framed in gilt and hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago would signal a different use value than a print in a cheap frame hanging in a college dorm room, as well as a different exchange value, and, because of the function of the frame to dictate modes of reading, its interpretation.

Frow points out that the frame as it relates to genre theory “has something important to say about how realities are constructed and maintained… a central implication about the concept of genre is thus that the realities in and amongst which we live are not transparently conveyed to us but are mediated by systems of representation: by talk, by writing, by acting, by images, and sound.” In other words, genre as Frow defines it works as “frames or fixes” on the world, greatly expanding our definition of what a frame is and can do. An interesting field of study concerns the rhetorical structure of a frame—the way relations between senders and receivers of messages are organized in a structured situation of address. For example, in the film Videodrome, (Cronenberg, 1983) the rhetoric with which Professor Oblivion speaks to Max through the television is at first purely generic as a televised message—prerecorded, nonspecific, but addressed as though directly to the individual viewer. It is only when the generic conventions and standard frame of the television message are violated that Max becomes engaged and frightened.

If frames are metacommunicative in relation to media, then media in turn are always potentially metacommunicative about their frames. Another extremely important concept that Goffman tackles but the current keyword definition doesn’t include in its discussion of his ideas is that of the bidirectional nature of the frame. In Frame Analysis, Goffman describes the frame as operating at two levels: “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.” (Goffman, 82). The energy of the frame, Goffman says, therefore radiates in two directions simultaneously: on the one hand, it “quotes” the text or image within a context where it is assigned to a particular function; on the other, it conducts the trace of the excluded non-aesthetic area inward, so that the space of the text is structured by its limit and becomes significant because of the restrictions operated by the frame. The mediated message is quoted by and within its context—the context of a particular kind of speech situation.

A final important term for thinking about frame is that of the paratext, to use Gerard Genette’s word. An example of paratext might be the illustration on a videocassette, the writing on the back of a book, the aesthetic layout of a magazine or newspaper, or even the theme song to a television show—anything that accompanies a work. Paratext can be as simple as the artist’s or author’s name and the preface of a book or an artist’s statement (See Foucault, “What is an Author”). A useful analogy in thinking about paratext is fringe—the outside, fuzzy borders between an object and its frame, where the paratext signals the frame, at the threshold of interpretation. Genette puts it this way:

More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold… It is an ‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text)… Indeed, this fringe, always the conveyor of a commentary that is authorial or more or less legitimated by the author, constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public. (Genette, 2)

While Genette is writing about literature’s paratextual apparatus, the same term can be applied to any medium, where the most important characteristic of the paratext or “para-image” is a site of ambivalence that must be negotiated and understood as a framing device that tells the viewer how to use a particular object. The paratext can itself be of varying degrees of intimacy with the text or image it frame, from the separate, external frame of a painting to a variously interdependent system of bidirectional reading, even ultimately experienced as a separate text (as in Barthes’ semiotic approach in “The Rhetoric of the Image”).

The concept of “paratext” can be applied outside of literature, where the framing device directs not how a text is read linguistically but experienced in other registers specific to different media, which can become extremely problematic as the framing of other media can be much subtler and more complex than, for example, the jacket of a book. In fact, our entire experience in the world, according to Heidegger, is an act of framing; in “The Age of the World Picture” he argues that the world can now be conceived of as a picture in our technological modernity and writes about the relationship between humans and the world and role of being as fundamentally oriented through what he calls “enframing” in “The Question Concerning Technology.” The concept of “frame” passes, sometimes invisibly, through much of media theory, and both paratext and frames in general become most interesting but also most potentially dangerous when they are almost invisible, and not recognized or considered by the audience of the medium.

Monica Westin


Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Frow, John. Genre. London: Routledge, 2006.

Frow, John. “The Literary Frame.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 16:2, 25-30.

Foucault, Michel “What is an Author?”, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp. 124-127.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper Row, 1977, 113-154.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Videodrome. Dir. David Cronenberg. Universal Studios. 1983.