Cognitive Poetics: Conceptual Frame Theory

In my previous post on comprehension of literature chapters from Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, I summarized Stockwell’s overview of the construction-integration model of literary comprehension. In this post, I will focus on one specific tool developed within the construction-integration model: contextual frame theory.


Catherine Emmott, who developed contextual frame theory, uses the basic principles of her theory to analyze various “tails of the unexpected”. First, she explains that contextual frames are mental representations readers build and maintain while reading a text. The contextual frame that is most immediate to the reader, the one the reader feels she is actively witnessing, is called the primed frame. Within the primed frame are projected frames, also mental representations but less detailed than the primed frame. A projected frame may be retrospective projected frame (a flashback), an off-stage projected frame, or a planned projected frame.


Emmott distinguishes her theory from Stockwell’s “frame projection” and Werth’s “sub-worlds”, discussed in the chapters on parable, by limiting frames to representation of actual physical contexts. So contextual frame theory does not include attitudinal sub-worlds, and every projected frame is subject to limited and specific types of assumptions and inferences relating to the physical and social. While this drastically narrows the scope of contextual frame theory, in doing so Emmott elucidates some interesting features of texts, not only related to plot but also to stylistics.


Four types of frame assumptions can be made about projected frames. Type 1 assumptions are based on real world schemas about the physical and social world. Type 2 assumptions are also based on real world schemas but are more circumstantial than Type 1 assumptions. The examples Emmott provides for these first two types of assumptions are that characters within the immediate vicinity of a speaker can hear what is being said, but that a character wearing earphones might not hear. Type 3 assumptions are not based on real world schemas but on schemas from literary sources, for example a reader of vampire stories may make specific assumptions about vampire characters such as avoiding sunlight and crucifixes. And the fourth type of frame assumption occurs when we are surprised, when our original assumptions are challenged and subsequently altered. Stockwell refers to this as “frame repair”. These four types of frame assumptions are used, sometimes in combination, to make inferences explaining what is happening or predicting what will happen.


In some cases, these inferences may override propositional content of the text, a feature of contextual frame theory that challenges other linguistic models which emphasize propositional content as the source for a reader’s construction of meaning. Contextual frame theory shows how important contextual information is to interpretation of propositional content. To illustrate how textual content is sometimes overridden, Emmott uses an example from Tulip by Deborah Moggach. The text describes a character, Willem, watching another character, Maria, secretly meeting and then kissing an unidentified man. Although implicit clues in the preceding text let the reader know it is actually another character, Sophia, in disguise, the propositional content of the text does not. The reader constructs the meaning of the passage not only from the propositional content but from the context.


Peter Stockwell’s cognitive poetic analysis of the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is along very different lines than Emmott’s, demonstrating the versatility of contextual frame theory. He considers the differences in contextual monitoring between a reader of the play and an audience watching a performance of the play. For the reader, the primed frame is indicated by the stage directions, and textual overtness switches as each character’s name appears in the text just to the left of each line of dialog. This is especially significant in a play like The Importance of Being Earnest that hinges on belief frames and enactors, versions of the same character that are significantly different in different contexts. To account for an audience’s contextual monitoring without access to stage directions or the names of characters except when spoken in dialog, Stockwell introduces a distinction between “visual priming” and “verbal priming”. A contextual frame is visual primed by what the audience sees on stage, and another contextual frame can be verbally primed by the characters on the stage. Verbally primed frames can include the belief frames of characters.


Both an audience and a reader of The Importance of Being Earnest will need to do some frame repair. Or to use Emmott’s frame assumption categories, both an audience and a reader will experience Type 4 frame assumptions, situations of surprise that require re-evaluation. But Stockwell points out that the timing and extent of the required frame repair is different depending on how the play is experienced. And Stockwell concludes his analysis with a brief consideration of one rather difficult staging of the play in 2001 that focused on the sexuality of Oscar Wilde. The complexity and incoherence of the enactor switches (several magnitudes greater in the 2001 staging than in the original text) becomes thematic, suggesting the director’s vision or belief frame.


Both Stockwell’s and Emmott’s analyses address how writing style controls the flow of information that influences assumptions and inferences the reader or audience makes when engaging with a text, and both consider examples of plot reversals, texts that turn on Type 4 assumptions. To achieve this surprise effect the author must provide sufficient contextual information for the reader to form assumptions and make inferences but withhold some information until the denouement. Using Emmott’s contextual frame theory, I would like to study more examples of how different authors use stylistics to manage information flow for different effects. In addition to surprises twists and plot reversals, I am intrigued by the subtler effects that might be achieved with careful control over the flow of information about context. And I would like to spend some time practicing these techniques myself, the way a visual artist might practice using light and shadow or practice drawing the human figure.

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