PRINT September 2008


P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down

Marie Menken, Lights, 1966, still from a color film in 16 mm, 6 minutes 30 seconds.


PRESS, 2008. 432 PAGES. $28.

THERE IS A MOMENT in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Intellect” (1841) that has always seemed to me to anticipate cinematic thinking:

If you gather apples in the sunshine, or make hay, or hoe corn, and then retire within doors, and shut your eyes, and press them with your hand, you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light, with boughs and leaves thereto, or the tasseled grass, or the corn-flags, and this for five or six hours afterwards. There lie the impressions on the retentive organ, though you knew it not. So lies the whole series of natural images with which your life has made you acquainted in your memory, though you know it not, and a thrill of passion flashes light on their dark chamber, and the active power seizes instantly the fit image, as the word of its momentary thought.

For Emerson, nature, rather than being an end in itself, is an exemplary occasion whereby the Real and imagination come together, each producing the possibilities of the other, creating the complex patterns that order the world as tropes for understanding one’s relationship to others and to oneself. Emerson believes that the active power of what he calls the “intellect constructive” seizes onto objects through synthesizing acts of the imagination as a means of discovering and revealing who we are and how we think. In this way, sight is not simply objective but is bound up with the process of meaning-making. We might call this vision. To know the world, in Emersonian terms, means to pay attention to how one experiences imagination and how one imagines experience.

Finding some network of affinities between this nineteenth-century American philosopher and many of the most central American experimental filmmakers of the past few decades might, at first, seem a surprising if not unlikely endeavor. In Eyes Upside Down, P. Adams Sitney, who has been avant-garde cinema’s most accomplished and most visible exegete for four decades, takes seriously Emerson’s claims about vision and visuality in the ordering of experience and applies them to cinematic thinking, describing film as an art form that enacts the processes of the intellect constructive. “Cinema is an art where things are found, where meaning grows,” writes Sitney, offering a point of contact between avant-garde film and Emerson’s epistemology. Given Sitney’s characteristic careful attention and agile erudition, if anyone could reveal the continuity between Emerson and the diaristic, quotidian films of Jonas Mekas, for instance, or Ernie Gehr’s structural masterpiece, Serene Velocity (1970), it is he.

Throughout Eyes Upside Down, Sitney continually draws upon Emerson’s early book Nature (1836), wherein one finds Emerson’s complex reference to becoming a “transparent eyeball,” a metaphor that, I would suggest, describes an apotheosis of self-consciousness (without attendant anxiety) whereby one becomes completely aware of oneself as a being experiencing experience itself. Sitney draws upon Emerson’s trope when he describes Marie Menken’s “somatic camera,” whose traveling gaze at once records and reconstitutes the filmmaker’s experience, which then, transfigured as art, the viewer as well as the filmmaker must negotiate and come to terms with. With this awareness, when one sees the world as if with “eyes upside down”—an idea of Emerson’s that is crucial to Sitney—comes a completely fresh, even liberated, perspective, one disinterred from mere habit or convention, that allows for new and previously unimagined possibilities of being. Visuality thus becomes a measure of vision’s active processes, for the filmmaker as well as for the audience. Ambitiously, Sitney brings these Emersonian poetics to bear on three generations of filmmakers: The first includes Menken, Ian Hugo, Mekas, and Lawrence Jordan; the second, Gehr, Warren Sonbert, Andrew Noren, Hollis Frampton, and Robert Beavers; while Abigail Child and Su Friedrich represent a third wave. Throughout the book, Stan Brakhage, whose persistent influence on avant-garde film comes in large part from Sitney’s ongoing engagement with Brakhage’s oeuvre, stands as perhaps the most important exemplar of Emersonian poetics, because of what Sitney argues is the filmmaker’s determined intuition that the intensely personal abstraction paradoxically reveals collectively held beliefs.

What is so compelling about Sitney’s project is that he does not trace out strains of conscious influence, nor does Eyes Upside Down construct an intellectual history. He acknowledges that many of the filmmakers discussed in Eyes Upside Down do not take Emerson as a specific reference or model—that is, if they even read the philosopher at all. Indeed, Sitney argues that the methods and practices, if not their references, are Emersonian in ways that the filmmakers may not even be conscious of. Discussing Beavers’s central film cycle and the paradox of its fraught negotiation of European culture, for example, Sitney writes, “If the details and references of its films largely evade the Emersonian models, the overall aspiration and achievement of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure are fundamentally a consequence of the poetics of Emerson and Whitman.” In Modernist Montage, published in 1990, Sitney makes a similar claim about the poet Charles Olson’s repression of his indebtedness to Emerson: “[T]he paradox of Emerson’s pervasiveness is that every American who insists that he is starting out from scratch, making a genre and a tradition all his own, and perhaps even a theoretical apparatus to support it, is adhering to Emerson’s tradition, often using his favored genres and even parroting his theories.” Sitney does not say every American writer—he says every American, indicating that there is nowhere that Emerson’s description of dialectical subjectivity does not reach, and that this generative epistemological tension that fashions an authentic self flows into all areas of American life. According to the implications of Sitney’s claims, avant-garde film has a great deal to teach us.

Eyes Upside Down, then, is not a myopic cataloguing of influence, but rather is the discovery of a particular intellectual context and, what follows, consequence for Emerson’s ideas and their epistemological and ethical ramifications. “I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back,” Emerson writes in “Circles” (1841). While this might be seen simply as an avant-gardist negation, Emerson does not seek to destroy merely for the sake of dogmatic iconoclasm. Instead, he unsettles things so as to discover his own, genuine thought, even if (paradoxically) that thought can never be definitively revealed. In the Emersonian poetics Sitney lays out, the films he describes do not fall into programmatic or reactionary stances; their disjunctiveness and frequent dissonance negate in the process of creating new ways of thinking and experiencing in order to expand the possibilities of what constitutes the world.

The book is not without its historicizing, however. Sitney persuasively establishes connections to Emerson among the filmmakers he discusses by showing specific exchanges between this cadre of avant-garde filmmakers and poetry: Child not only makes films but is a poet with several published collections; Frampton once moved to Washington, DC, to be close to Ezra Pound, who was institutionalized at St. Elizabeths Hospital; Jordan apprenticed himself to Robert Duncan and Jess; many of Brakhage’s closest friends were writers connected to Black Mountain College, and his obsession with Gertrude Stein is well known. The affinities go on and they are amazingly deep. Thus, a larger implication of Sitney’s argument is that Emerson is the context from which the avant-garde in America springs. This provocative claim extends a view of American aesthetics that Sitney has been constructing since the 1970s.

Robert Beavers, Diminished Frame, 1970/2001, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 24 minutes. © 2008 Temenos Inc./Robert Beavers.

In 1974, he published Visionary Film, a text that remains—rightfully—the most canonical work on American experimental cinema. With that book, Sitney offers a general category for American avant-garde film (the visionary) while providing a taxonomy of genres by which to read the often daunting aesthetic practices of its principal figures. Both in this book as well as in Eyes Upside Down, Sitney’s general frame of the visionary in and as film speaks to an indebtedness to Romanticism—sometimes conscious, sometimes not—that he finds pervasive among the range of film artists he considers. Given this Romantic inheritance, Sitney’s emphasis on the visionary and visuality remains his main theoretical investment. In his afterword to The Gaze of Orpheus (1981), a collection of essays by Maurice Blanchot in translation, Sitney insists: “Visibility seems to be one literary value that is self-evident. Even the Symbolist exaltation of the hint over bold representation confirms the primacy of vision; it is too important and holy to be proferred promiscuously; the poem should withhold it and unfold it as a ritual of mystery. Yet the centrality of a poetics of vision has in our time come into question.” The critique of that poetics is motivated by a suspicion that sight is represented both as unmediated and as offering objective truth. Sitney’s turn to Emerson bespeaks a profound and keenly felt commitment to the belief that the poetics of vision—in literature and cinema—offers the possibility of generating tellingly subjective intensities. If this is a return to humanism, then it is done with eyes wide open.

In Eyes Upside Down, Sitney presents an Emerson who does not invent or fabricate, but who insists on the luminous exhilaration of the everyday, an Emerson who recasts how we might approach the work of filmmakers such as Brakhage and Child, Menken and Sonbert, as acts of imagination. In the darkened chamber of the theater, the images produced by Sitney’s visionary—his Emersonian—company of filmic artists offer in their collisions and challenges the shock of the new, thereby opening different and differing perspectives on experience, on imagination, on the things that surround us all the time. If these films do not represent a world, they present an art that transforms the fit image into the word of momentary thought, a thought inescapably, almost unrecognizably our own, flaring in the mind as if for the first time.

Richard Deming, lecturer in English at Yale University , is the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford University Press, 2007).