Frames of Identity Revisited

a women getting her picture taken in a frame holding a pictureWhile at a workshop in Bethlehem, PA, I stayed at The Historic Bethlehem Hotel, built in early 19th century – a very nice and quaint hotel. On the second day of my stay there I came across a photo shoot in the lobby and as you can see in the picture that I was able to snap, the multiple frames immediately caught my attention and reminded me of a blog I wrote a while back on the use of frames at a museum in Greece – devices that effectively reinforced the nation’s enduring identity.

Later, I did some searching and learned that the hotel was then preparing a memorial dinner for the famous U.S. aviator, Amelia Earhart, who was lost during a flight in 1937, somewhere in the Pacific and her disappearance remains a mystery till now. So, apart from the meal that the hotel was preparing – dishes that the hotel claimed were the aviator’s favourite – the guests would be served by costumed actors such as the one we see in the picture above.

Here we have a hotel that uses the framing technique for its own benefit, that is, creating the impression of its own continuity in time. What the frame seem to be effectively doing is grouping together what might instead be seen as disparities both in space and in time. This technique or strategy which is known by other names as well (identified by Craig Martin in his Imagining Identity), is not unfamiliar for scholars of religion, such as Willi Braun and William Arnal, who each work on the beginnings of early Christianity. They each write respectively:

“This is not to say, of course, that nothing happened in the first century, but it is to say few Christian things happened and that whatever happened in the first century is massively mediated to us by what happened in the second century and later. This includes the all-important determination of the facts that are given the weight of evidentiary data for the first century in second-century Christian mythmaking. Linkages, trajectories, successions, traditions, and the like, go not forward in time, but backward. They are categories made for manufacturing “origins” in the full mythic sense of the term.” (Willi Braun, “The First Shall be Last: The Gospel of Mark after the First Century,” 2010)

My proposal, then, is intended to be programmatic: Christian origins are really to be sought in the ways in which a rapidly self-defining social movement of the second century invented a tradition for itself. It did so by laying claim to, and thus retrojecting its own sense of identity onto scattered and variegated past artifacts: stories, sayings collections, letters, and individual characters such as Peter and Paul. This act of laying claim was supported by redaction and embellishment of the artifacts in question, generating a cumulative and synthetic body of putative forerunners, now invested with a retrospective unity and identity.” (William Arnal, 2011)

To return then to the viewframe of the camera: the photographer lines up, groups together, a picture of a woman aviator from the early 1900s standing in front of her airplane and a costumed actress from the early 2000s standing in front of a hotel; yet, this difference is not what we first notice, instead, we assume that there is a connection (a continuity, if you will), a connection that is only made possible by the frame itself. Frames – and we may now see the concept of tradition as operating in the same way – that we draw, based on our goals, therefore seem to be a strategic identification technique employed by agents (in this case, the hotel, in Braun’s case, second century writers deciding what in the first was worth commemorating) in the present that smooth for us the gaps, the disparities, by portraying continuity between two points in time and place – points that, without the borders, would be difficult to imagine in any sort of relationship.

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