Cognitive Poetics: Conceptual Frame Theory

In my previous post on comprehension of literature, 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. In Cognitive Poetics in Practice Catherine Emmott, who developed contextual frame theory, analyzes various “tails of the unexpected”. And in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell uses contextual frame theory to analyze The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.


First, Emmott explains the basic principles of her contextual frame theory. The mental representations readers build and maintain while reading a text are called contextual frames. And 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 more mental representations called projected frames. The projected frames are less salient and less detailed than the primed frame but can be representations of such things are flashbacks, off-stage action, and plans.


Contextual frame theory is distinct from Stockwell’s “frame projection” and Werth’s “sub-worlds”, discussed in the chapters on parable. Contextual frame theory does not have anything like attitudinal or modal sub-worlds. Contextual frame theory is limited to representations of actual physical and social context. So, every projected frame is subject to specific types of assumptions and inferences relating to the physical and social. While this limitation 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, which Stockwell refers to 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.


The audience and a reader of The Importance of Being Earnest will need to do some frame repair. Or in terms of 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. A reader experiences textual jokes and puns as the names of characters appear differently in stage directions and dialog. But the names spoken in dialog are the only names the audience has access to as they monitor the different belief frames and contexts throughout the play.


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. Information about the homosexual subtext of the play was provided to the audience in the programme at the start of the play. And in performing the play, actors cross-dressed and exchanged roles, so that the magnitude of enactor switches was several times greater than in the original text. The complexity and incoherence, Stockwell argues, becomes thematic of 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 inferences and assumptions the reader or audience makes when engaging with a text, and both analyses consider examples of plot reversals, texts that turn on Type 4 assumptions. To write an effective plot reversal, an author must provide sufficient contextual information for the reader to form assumptions but withhold some critical information until the denouement. Indeed, the control of information is how an author shapes all emotional responses to reading a text. Using Emmott’s contextual frame theory, I would like to study more examples of how different authors use stylistics to manage information for different effects. In addition to surprises twists and plot reversals, I am intrigued by how the flow of information about context might achieve subtle emotional responses.

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