Working the Frame: Derrida, Harman, and the Language-Object Debate in the Humanities

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association

“How are you framing that?” It’s a frequent question we hear in the theoretically pluralistic world of the contemporary humanities. The question is seldom complimentary. As an interrogatory salvo, it frequently means: “What are the epistemological assumptions that undergird your conclusions?” The question is often meant to expose undertheorized terrain so that it can be made more intellectually robust with deeper thinking—or set aside as insufficient. Visual culture scholar John Tagg concisely defines framing, used in this sense, as “discursive constraint.” All framing, however, could arguably be seen as a problem of such constraint, regardless of how big or how refined the frame gets. Jacques Derrida captures this problem trenchantly by positing the frame as “a border which is itself double in its trait, and joins together what it splits.” The frame, as an epistemological delimiter, inevitably invokes what has been abrogated, and so, ultimately, the conceptual boundaries of any structured thought remain terminally incapable. Such an epistemology relies, of course, on knowledge as discursively constructed and language, the purveyor of such knowledge, as inherently unstable and allusive—fundamental precepts of the linguistic turn.

In contrast, Graham Harman, one of the chief architects of the objective turn in the humanities, refuses such precepts. Instead, he argues that “two opposed but interlocked dimensions” can indeed be “frame[d]”—that an “isolated frame” need not be delimiting, but can itself contain an infinite multiplicity in the form of discrete objects: objects of thought, of language, of the visual world, or of the material world in general. Since an object, for Harman, “withdraws behind any form of presence,” such an object achieves its multiplicity vertically, through imperceptible depths, rather than horizontally, through linkages to chains of related signifiers. Thus Harman concludes that the “being” of objects “is deeper than every logos.” By repurposing the frame, Harman consequently shifts the epistemological debate from the problems of linguistic constraint to the possibilities of objective containment.

The purpose of this panel is to explore the significance of the frame—as discursive constraint, as enabler of ontological possibility—and so to enter into the larger debate that this metaphor focalizes in the humanities: that between linguistic and objective models of epistemology and interpretation. Papers from any quarter of the humanities are welcome. Those which pay particular attention to interdisciplinary perspectives are of especial interest. Please include a brief bio with your 500-word abstract.  Follow this link to submit: