Frame Lock

collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems

Charles Bernstein

Lost Wages, Nev., Nov. 13 - Riddick Bowe, the 25-year-old challenger from Brooklyn outgunned Evander Holyfield through 12 gritty rounds to win the undisputed world heavyweight title... Afterward, when the decision was announced, a weary Holyfield was asked whether he wanted a rematch. "No," he said, "I think I'm finished." - The New York Times

A specter is haunting the literary academy: the growing discrepancy between our most advanced theories and institutionally encoded proscriptions on our writing and teaching practices.

I diagnose the problem as "frame lock", a kind of logorrheic lock jaw, or sandy mouth, or bullet-with-the-baby-not-just-quite-then-almost-out-of-reach, as a mood swinging under a noose of monomaniacal monotones, the converted preaching to the incontrovertible, the guard rail replacing the banisters, stairs, stories, elevation, detonation, reverberation, indecision, concomitant intensification system.

Frame lock, and its cousin tone jam, are the prevailing stylistic constraints of the sanctioned prose of the profession. No matter that the content of an essay may interrogate the constructed unity of a literary work or a putative period; may dwell on linguistic fragmentation, demolition, contradiction, contestation, inter-eruption; may decry assumptions of totality, continuity, narrative progression, teleology, or truth and may insist that meaning is plural, polygamous, profligate, uncontainable, rhetorical, slippery or sliding or gliding or giddy and prurient. The keepers of the scholarly flame, a touch passed hand to hand and fist to mouth by generations of professional standard bearers and girdle makers, search committees and admissions officers, editors and publishers, maintain, against all comers, that the argument for this or that or the other must maintain appropriate scholarly decorum.

Theory enacted into writing practice is suspect, demeaned as unprofessional. But that is because theory so enacted ceases to be theory - a body of doctrine - insofar as it threatens with poetry or philosophy. Theory, prophylacticly wrapped in normalizing prose styles, is protected from the scourge of writing and thinking as active, open-ended, and investigatory. The repression of writing styles in the literary academy is enforced by the collusion of scholars, theorists, administrators and editors across the spectrum of periods and methodologies. PMLA would prefer to publish poets writing in the patrician rhetoric of the nineteenth century about the exhaustion of poetry than to permit actual poetic acts to violate its pages. While many of the most innovative of the profession's theorists and scholars sit on the board of PMLA, the publication persists in its systematic process of enforcing mood and style control on all its articles and letters, as if tone or mood were unrelated to argument and meaning. Difference and otherness: these values ring hollow if they are not applied, also, to our own productions and articulations. If PMLA - a no doubt easy but nonetheless representatively obtrusive target - is strictly whitebread, the radical claims for diversity made within its pages seem stifled or neutered.

Professionalism and career advancement are the bogeymen of frame lock. Dissertations must not violate stylistic norms because that might jeopardize our young scholar's future. "Let them be radical in what they say but not in how they say it." - Such is the pragmatic, and characteristically self-fulfilling, argument that is made. The point here, as in most initiation rites, is to be hazed into submission, to break the spirit, and to justify the past practice of the initiators. Professionalization is the criterion of professional standing but not necessarily professional values; nor are our professional writing standards at or near the limits of coherence, perception, edification, scholarship, communication, or meaning. Underneath the mask of career-minded concessions to normalcy is an often repressed epistemological positivism about the representation of ideas. While the philosophical and linguistic justifications for such ideational mimesis - for example the idea that a writing style can be transparent or neutral - have been largely undermined, the practice of ideational mimesis is largely unacknowledged and, as a result, persists unabated.

In order to explore unsanctioned forms of scholarly and critical writing, graduate students and new faculty need to be protected against the arbitrary enforcement of antiquated stylistic constraints. Yet even those in the profession who are sympathetic to these new - and indeed not-at-all new - writing forms may believe that one's initial professional work should be stylistically orthodox, with innovations considered only in later work. This argument is akin to the idea that art students should first learn anatomy and figure drawing before they embark on more expressionist or abstract work. As a generalization, there is no merit to this argument (while of course specific individuals may benefit from different experiences). Younger scholars and critics are most likely to bring energy and enthusiasm to their writing, to open up new paths, to push the boundaries of the possible; once channelled into frame lock, more often than not they get stuck in its claustrophobic confines. And young scholars who are not supported for taking new directions often drop out, or are forced out, of the profession: a loss of talent that our universities cannot afford.

It is no secret that universities reward conformism and conventionality under the name of both professionalization and currency. We see all around us dress and decorum advisories for job interviews such as those this week at the MLA: as if dressing the same as every one else - any more than writing the same or citing the same 17 major theorists or authors as everyone else - makes you a better researcher or cultural interpreter. Indeed, there is no evidence to show that tone-lock, any more than interview dress codes, make better teachers, or more committed or knowledgeable scholars; on the contrary, there is plenty of reason to believe this sort of career-oriented behavior, exacerbated by the present scarcity of jobs, breeds a professional cynicism that is disastrous for the infectious enthusiasm and performative limberness that are crucial components for teaching. The forms we enforce among ourselves serve not the content of our work but the perpetuation of our administrative apparatuses.


Frame lock is a term I base on Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis. As applied to prose, it can generally be characterized as an insistence on a univocal surface, minimal shifts of mood either within paragraphs or between paragraphs, exclusion of extraneous or contradictory material, and tone restricted to the narrow affective envelope of sobriety, neutrality, objectivity, authoritativeness, or deanimated abstraction. In frame-locked prose, the order of sentences and paragraphs is hypotactic, based on a clear subordination of elements to an overriding argument that is made in a narrative or expository or linear fashion. In what might be called the rule of the necessity of paraphrase, the argument must be separable from its expression, so that a defined message can be extracted from the text. To this end, arguments must be readily glossable and indeed periodically reiterated self-glosses are used as markers to enforce interpretative closure.

With the proliferation of frames of interpretation over the past fifteen years, a menu of methodological choices is available to the young scholar. In a campus version of the dating game, our initiate may attend a series of seminars, each promising the satisfactions of its newly rejuvenated, comprehensively restyled, and radically overhauled approach. One frame of interpretation beckons with its production of detail and cultural difference, another allures with its astounding solutions, while the sociality of a third seems magnetic; in contrast, the social responsibility of a fourth is compelling, while the ultimate sophistication of a fifth is irresistible. Finally, uber alles, the retro chic of rejecting any and all the new frames of interpretation is always in style, always a good career move - and the fast track for getting quoted in national media.

After a period of flirtation with several of these approaches, our neophyte (the neophyte within each of us) makes a commitment to one primary frame. The marriage is consummated in the act of being announced.

Of course a newly chosen frame of interpretation may replace an older one; indeed divorce and remarriage are as inevitable as new consumers in a market economy. Serial monogamy is typical, as long as the series doesn't get very long; breaking frame is suspect. For the crucial ingredient of frame lock is consistency, sticking to one frame at a time. When flames are jumped, the new frame must appear to replace the old, which is best publicly stigmatized as damaged goods, so much youthful idealism or false consciousness or lack of rigor. This is called keeping up or advancing with the field.

If I exaggerate, and my commitment to exaggeration is second to none, even I was surprised to get a couple of examination copies in the mail this past month from Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press that seemed to parody beyond my powers the problem of rigid segmentation of frames of interpretation. In what could easily be called The Frame Lock Series of Target Texts, we have the complete, authorized, unabridged version of Polish immigrant Joey-Joey-Joey Conrad's brooding Heart of Darkness, in what might as well have been six-point type, an almost expendable pretext to a half-dozen large-type chapters offering a menu of interpretative modes - reader-response, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, new historical, historical materialist, and feminist. Each critical section starts with a ten-page gloss of the theoretical approach, written in clear unambiguous prose, studded with quotations from well-known practitioners of the theory: just enough lucid explanation to make a travesty of each of these methods, stripped as they are of their context, necessity, and complexity. Appended to this are ten pages applying the now-manageable theory to the pretext, the absent center that is so aptly named Heart of Darkness in this case.

Most scholars resist such compartmentalization, such marriages of convenience, despite the professional pressures that push them into them. But our profession too rarely addresses the conflict between inquiry and job-search marketing in which one's work is supposed to be easily summed up, definable, packaged, polished, wrinkles and contradictions eliminated, digressions booted. Insofar as we make hiring decisions using these criteria, insofar as we train graduate students to conform to such market imperatives, insofar as we present our own writing and scholarship and evaluate each other's along these lines, then the demands of our work - teaching, research, encouraging creativity - will be severely compromised. Professionalization need not be antithetical to our work as educators and writers and searchers, but in itself professionalization offers no protection against the emptying of those values that many of us would espouse for our work.


Goffman's analysis of frames is valuable for understanding the institutional nature of all forms of communication. In particular, frame analysis can help elucidate disputes over the curriculum in terms of both interdisciplinarity and core (or required) courses.

By their nature, frames focus attention on a particular set of features at the same time as they divert attention from other features that Goffman locates in the "disattend track". A traditional, or frame-locked, curriculum is designed so that each of its elements fits within a single overall scheme. Like the fourth wall in an old-fashioned play, the curricular frame is neither questioned nor broken. Even as curricular content (the canon) is challenged and reconstituted, the new material tends to be reframed within revised disciplinary boundaries. In contrast, anti-lock syllabi emphasize a performative and interdisciplinary approach that may undercut the passive learning patterns that currently cripple many of our educational efforts.

The process of locating disattend tracks, and bringing them to the center of attention, can be understood as not only a primary pedagogical aim but also a central project of much modernist and contemporary art. Within text-bound literary studies, the disattend track may include such features as the visual representation of the language as well as its acoustic structure. Moreover, a work may best be discussed within a context that not only includes its historical or ideological context, but also its interdependence on contemporary painting, theater, or music, not to mention the "popular" arts of the period. The idea that works of literature can be studied in isolation from the other arts, a founding idea of the discipline of English literary studies, may simply be mistaken. Certainly, the very limited aesthetic consciousness of college graduates would support the proposition that current approaches are misguided. Basic remodeling is necessary.

Not only our subjects, but also our methods, need to be addressed from an interdisciplinary perspective. In much of the discourse coming out of English departments, the art of writing has been relegated to the disattend track. To insist on the art of writing is, ironically, to press the need for interdisciplinarity within a field bisected against itself. To call for greater interaction between literary studies and the literary arts is to call literary studies back to itself.

My idea of a core curriculum will seem perverse to many advocates of both traditional and progressive approaches. My commitment to difference is not satisfied only by differences of "subject positions". To be sure, a course of differences must include a broad range of subject positions (including ones not easily definable by prevailing categories) but, to avoid frame lock, it also needs to include radical differences in forms, styles and genres of expression and nonexpression. Insofar as narratives of personal or group experience are given primacy over other formal and aesthetic modalities, difference is not only enriched but also suppressed.

My modest proposal no doubt hopelessly complicates an already difficult task because it places virtually no limits on the number or types of possible works that might be studied. I find this a more stimulating starting point than determining a convenient frame that makes the task easier and more rationalizable. For example, I find myself surprisingly impatient with the obviously well-intentioned idea that an English department should require its undergraduate majors to take survey courses that cover canonically and historically significant (though previously underrepresented) works of English literature, along with a companion course in major trends in literary theory. In many such curricular proposals, and in the related "multicultural" anthologies published in recent years, the choice of literary authors is made with a commitment to diversity in mind. In contrast, there is rarely a similar commitment to diversity among the authors to be studied in theoretical and methodological courses. Furthermore, the new literature curriculums and anthologies are generally restricted to English language works, while it is hard to imagine a comparable anthology or core course in literary theory restricted only to works written in English. A number of problematic assumptions are at work here. In the first place, there is the idea that theory is a quasi-scientific form of knowledge that is able to transcend - largely, if not totally - its particular subject positions, and, as a result, is not dependent for its value on the fact that it represents a particular subject position. The corollary to this is that literary works do have their value in representing subject positions, and, as a result, are infinitely substitutable: in effect literature becomes a series of possible examples, any one of which is expendable. The problem is analogous to the disturbing practice of universities doing all their affirmative action hiring in the infinitely elastic or "soft" humanities rather than doing such hiring equally in the "uncompromisable" social and natural sciences.

What is English? While poetry may be said to be untranslatable in a way that philosophical works are not, philosophy also may be untranslatable in certain ways. Or rather, some philosophy (call it theory) and some literature (call it sociological) pose few translation problems. In this respect, it is revealing that some of the new anthologies that purport to represent cultural diversity - The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, are the most prominent - emphasize contemporary poetry written in a single-voice confessional mode that already seems to have been translated into the prevailing idiom of the anthologies themselves. This stylistic discrimination entails the rejection of works that challenge the idea that English is a transparent medium that can represent cultural experience as if it were information (already had a form). The result is that both formally innovative work and work in nonstandard forms of English are marginalized.

I could go on.

Can Continental philosophy be understood in the absence of Continental literature? Or does Continental philosophy without Continental literature equal American literary theory?

Disciplinary boundaries serve more to cordon off areas of knowledge than to encourage students to search through a wide range of historical writers and thinkers and art practices. I would like to see the direction of undergraduate English programs in American universities move expansively toward the world rather than more parochially toward the literature of England and its linguistic heirs. While I suppose one could argue that people in the U.S. might have a special reason to know about the history and literature of the U.S. (though possibly North America would be the better frame), I can't see giving priority to the literature of England as opposed to the literature of the other European countries - or indeed other places in the world. English majors usually major in English not because of special interest in England but because of a more general interest in literature, writing, art, the humanities, or the history of ideas. English is the host language of their study. It's not as if students are likely to study Li Po or Soupault elsewhere in their studies - much less the Popul Vuh or Sapho. And, if that's so, it's hard to see how the line can be usefully drawn without including the "other" arts, and works from cultures that do not identify their cultural productions by proper names. Jerome Rothenberg's and Pierre Joris's forthcoming Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern Poetry goes a long way toward redressing this problem.


But I digress. I came here to talk paragraphs.


I like the idea of a paragraph developing its own internal logic, pushing a stretch of thought, turning around a term, considering a particular angle on a problem.

But it's the shift from paragraph to paragraph that creates the momentum, with the jump varying from almost indiscernible to a leap. My method of teaching, as much as writing, is to place one thing side by side with another and another, so that the series creates multiple perspectives on the issues addressed.

But what is the conclusion? What knowledge is gained? What has been taught or demonstrated? - Performance has no value, no substance. You want a theater of ideas but no knowledge. - As if the process of critical thinking needed an end to justify it.

Then why does poetry have its music, fiction its stories, essays their ideas?


- But aren't you conflating literary and academic writing? -Possibly. Not necessarily. Not at all. Why are you bothering me? Can't you understand what I'm saying? I don't like to be spoken to in that manner. I think I deserve an apology, an ontology, a spin doctor, a value-added package with no financing, a one-way ticket to the next oceanliner, a way out of this pleated bag, container, vehicle, conveyor, storage bin, basement franchise.

Well, only if you say so, then maybe I'd agree.

What is wrong with you! Would you go and wash your hands they're full of chocolate!

Oh, excuse me. I don't know how that got in here, I guess I've never installed the right import protection system on my digital alphabet generator. Can I recommend a few inexpensive, but fairly decent, restaurants in the neighborhood of the hotel? I particularly like the small satellite cafe in the atrium on 53rd just west of Sixth.


I've only just begun to contradict myself. But I contain no multitudes; I can't even contain myself.

Nor am I interested in proving anything. - Except to you, sir: to you I want to prove a thing or two, I'll tell you that. About that job opening ... Can we meet me in the lounge right after the session?


It is my great pleasure to recommend V.S.O.P. for the position available at your university. V.S.O.P. is one of the most extraordinary scholars at the university and I am convinced that her work will become fundamental for future scholarship. I strongly recommend V.S.O.P. for advancement in the field. I can think of no young scholar that I could recommend to you more heartily.


Is that any worse than the way you conflate philosophy and what you like to call theory, or criticism and sociology, or interpretation and psychoanalysis? And anyway what is the natural form of scholarly writing? Where do our present standards come from? What values do they propagate? What and who do they exclude? What kinds of teaching and research do they foster, what discourage?

If some of the more interrogatory directions in literary studies, following almost a century of artistic practice, suggest we need to break down the distinction between high art and the rest of culture in order to investigate the interdependence of all cultural production, then it should come as less a surprise than it evidently does that the distinction between research and the thing researched will also break down. Erosion goes in both directions, or all three, since we don't want to forget about Aunt Rosie and the Babysitter's Club. Signifying is as signifying does. To assume a form of writing is to make it always and forever a cultural artifact.


Am I just complaining about being bored by certain prose styles, rendered without the panache needed to give them the intensity they sometimes possess? In any case, I'm not trying to exclude any of the styles of writing now practiced in the university, but to ask why we limit it to that. And if that should change, my questioning would find new targets. Questioning is its own reward. Frame-locked prose seems to deny its questions, its contradictions, its exhilarations, its comedy, its groping.

I find it more interesting to teach a class, or write an essay, on something I don't understand than to represent in a class or essay that which I already seem to have understood at some time previous.


I do not propose alternating between two subjects or two frames: that merely multiplies what is a problem in the first instance. I am suggesting a potentially endless series that does not systematically return to the point of its comparison, a parade of blackout sketches on Freud's mystic writing pad, whose origin is in departure, whose destination is in going on.

One thing I want to break down is the virtually Kantian picture of the studier and the thing studied. Serial composition, one paragraph adjacent to the next, one topic followed by another, one perspective permuted with another, refuses the idea that the studied and the studier are separable. Next to us is not the work that we study, which we love so well to explain, but the work we are. I unclothe myself in addressing a poem, and the poem returns to show me my bearings, my comportment, and the way to read the next poem or painting, person or situation.


I am as low and befuddled as any man, as fouled and out of touch and self-deluded; this is what gives me a place from which to speak.


Is criticism condemned to be 50 years behind the arts? Is the art of today the model for the cultural studies of the next century? Will you be content to produce artifacts already inscribed in a dimming past, quaint lore for future researchers of institutional mores to mull on? Or will you make the culture you desire?

It's worth repeating: signifying practices have only art from which to copy.


-- Oh, no, not art! I thought art was finished, over, done. I mean after Burger and Danto and Jameson and Bourdieu and all those anthologies of cultural and new historical studies! I mean after the Yale School took Keats out on a TKO, art's never even had a strong contender.

-- Charlie, Charlie, Charlie it was you. I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.

-- Art, she's not finished. I can hear her in the very halls we are congregating in today. She's saying: Just give me one more chance in the ring.

Presented on December 29, 1992, at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association as part of a panel on "Framing the Frame: Theory and Practice". Published in College Literature 21.2, June (1994) and posted with the permission of the editor, Jerry McGuire. © Charles Bernstein. Subsequently published in My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).