PRINT April 2009


Hollis Frampton’s Collected Writings

THE LEGACY OF HOLLIS FRAMPTON—as a filmmaker, photographer, video and computer artist, critic, and theorist of the visual media he worked in—has continued to define itself and expand in the more than two decades that have passed since his death in 1984, at the age of forty-eight. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Frampton created a series of films—Lemon (1969), Zorns Lemma (1970), the seven films that make up Hapax Legomena (1971–72), and the roughly two dozen works conceived as parts of his unfinished Magellan project, including Magellan at the Gates of Death (1976), Otherwise Unexplained Fires (1976), and Gloria! (1979)—that rerouted the sensibility of American avant-garde cinema. He also produced a group of essays that recall the seminal writings of Jean Epstein and Sergei Eisenstein in their bold attempt to theorize the photographer and filmmaker’s vocation and methods. Yet, for a while after his death, Frampton seemed to fade from awareness (although for those of us who had been seared by his work and thought, his presence never dimmed), the victim of an untimely demise who left behind plans for a magnum opus only partially realized and largely unseen. Like a latent photographic image, his significance, apparently, needed time to develop in relative obscurity.

But curiously, the Frampton revival that seems to be under way comes not only from the faithful who have never abandoned their allegiance to this deeply significant if curtailed career (as witnessed in P. Adams Sitney’s penetrating discussion of Frampton in his 2008 book, Eyes Upside Down) but reaches beyond the traditional followers of American avant-garde film. Jean-Luc Godard, whose attitude toward the New American Cinema of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger ranged from hostility to indifference, filled the screen of the last episode of his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98) with Frampton’s name, while more recently, new-media critics and scholars have discovered that Frampton’s theoretical writings and films anticipated the terrain of postcinematic media—and a new crop of graduate students are proposing dissertations dealing with various aspects of his work.

The arrival of this new
edition of Frampton’s
 writings, lovingly and 
carefully edited by long-
time associate and scholar
 Bruce Jenkins, redeems 
Frampton from the fate 
of a figure available only to cognoscenti. Reprinting the twelve essays from the filmmaker’s 1983 volume Circles of Confusion (long out of print), and gathering additional essays and previously unpublished notes, drafts, and correspondence, On the Camera Arts will not only introduce a new generation to Frampton’s elegance, wit, and insight, but will also demonstrate his prescient understanding of a medium whose broad territory he surveyed when others could only glimpse their immediate neighborhood. The volume includes the famous series of essays on photography that Frampton first published in Artforum and October—including uniquely unconventional reflections on Paul Strand (1972), Eadweard Muybridge (1973), and Edward Weston (1978)—as well as his writings on film (primary among them his witty and paradoxical “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative” [1972]); notes for (and texts from) key films such as Zorns Lemma, (nostalgia) (1971), and Gloria!; and discussions of his plans for Magellan. But Frampton’s writings don’t rest comfortably within traditional critical or expository modes. His essays ironically engage the genres of the biographical, the autobiographical, and the fictional, offering parodies of scholarly commentary and scientific theory, and risking the domains of vatic oracle, larded with appropriated anecdotes, dirty jokes, and recherché erudition. The essays from Circles remain the center of this new collection, but the additions are more than peripheral and are certainly welcome—especially the interviews and film notes, which give us Frampton’s voice in another key.

This volume does more than excavate the literary remains of a major figure from the ’70s. Indeed, Frampton’s writings appear more relevant today than ever before. In his succinct introduction, Jenkins indicates that Frampton’s essays were destined for the future, a future that is presumably arriving now. But Jenkins’s claim that the filmmaker’s writings exist “out of time” warrants careful glossing. Frampton, I would claim, never abandons temporality for some timeless Platonic perspective, but he does indeed pull himself out of the linear and unidirectional narrative commonly known as history. His work cannot, of course, exist outside of time or history, inasmuch as these constitute the very center of both his films and his writings. Individually and in aggregate, these essays challenge time’s traditional order and redirect history’s currents. Like Nietzsche, Frampton could be called untimely: challenging, interrupting the viscous flow of time, and disrupting its ideological counterpart, “progress,” in order to awaken us from its nightmare logic and perhaps create a better one. Photography and the cinema (and ultimately video) provided Frampton with multiple means to capture, suspend, and rearrange time in order to construct an alternative history, a new tradition, and even a new experience of temporality. Photography, cinematography, video, Frampton claimed, could construct an alternative to the traditional understanding of the world, which had mirrored the linearity of language.

Frampton’s grand projects, whether photographic, critical, or cinematic, envisioned nothing less than an encyclopedic attempt to account for the world using photographic and cinematic media. Rather than refute time, he sought to transform it, converting history from a chronicle into a database capable of instantaneous and imaginative juxtaposition, coordination, and replacement. His films and theories constructed counternarratives and palindrome-like labyrinths and riddles. Through a series of essays, Frampton developed his term for this free juxtaposition of the images of time: ecstasy. (In “Incisions in History/ Segments of Eternity,” from 1974, he added, somewhat deviously, “I assume that everyone knows what that is.”) For Frampton, as for his acknowledged master Eisenstein, ecstasy offered both a goal and a method. Ecstasy represented more than escape from a limited subjectivity; it impelled one into a confrontation with the origins of time and consciousness. As a modernist, Frampton saw his work as dealing less with self-expression than with “recovering the fundamental conditions and limits of his art,” as he put it in “A Lecture,” from 1968, an early manifesto on the nature of cinema. Like the exemplars of modernism whom he cited—Varèse and Berg, Mondrian and Pollock, Eisenstein and Brakhage (and one could add his literary heroes, Joyce and Pound)— Frampton sought out his art’s “axiomatic substructure,” a phrase that recurs in several of his essays (e.g., “Mediations Around Paul Strand” [1972] and “Notes on Composing Film” [1975]). But the dialectic of Frampton’s quest led him beyond a Greenbergian assertion of the material substrate of cinema, since, as he maintained, no one was really sure what the material of cinema might be. Rather than an anti-illusionistic contemplation of its own material, Frampton’s cinema pursued an asymptotic encounter with the processes of human consciousness. The temporality of the image inherent in photography, but even more the ecstatic practice of time shifting inherent in the moving image and the process of editing, offered not just a new art form but new modes of representing consciousness. Cinema, Frampton claimed, had “discerned and enunciated for itself a task” he described as nothing less than to be fully and radically isomorphic with the dynamic structure of consciousness (“Incisions in History”). At the time of Frampton’s death, artists and theorists seemed to be engaged in shaking off the burden of such titanic ambitions in favor of more ironic methods and piecemeal theories. But in a contemporary culture of convergence, a theory that recognizes the ambitions of media to take on more than the limits of their own materials may seem less totalizing than prophetic. Yet for Frampton, every grand narrative must remain (like his own Magellan or like The Cantos of his mentor Pound) fragmentary, while the only authentic method of recounting a universal history lies in irony and parody (as in the literary speculations of his other master, Borges).

Frampton proposed replacing film history with a concept he described in his essay “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses” (1971). The “metahistory of film” could be defined as film history as it should have occurred, rearranged so that the contingencies of causality are revealed in their essential necessity. The posited object of this metahistory is what Frampton calls the “infinite cinema,” which comprises not only all the films ever made (including the decidedly nonaesthetic, such as instructional films and medical imaging) but also every photograph ever taken. In “Digressions on the Photographic Agony” (1972), Frampton spins the parable of a huge sphere discovered one day floating on the ocean and identified as the lost continent of Atlantis, which, when pried open, is found to contain nothing but photographs. The infinite cinema provides a parallel universe, the media doppelgänger cast by the nightmare of history through the illumination of cinema and photography. Like Borges’s map as large as the terrain it represents, such unwieldy material could prove useless without a means of handling it. Frampton’s theory of the metahistory of cinema provides such a means to circumnavigate this infinite playlist. He hoped, as he remarked in a lecture delivered at the Whitney Museum in 1979 on the relation between early cinema and the avant-garde, to “construct something that will amount to an arena for thought, and presumably, as well, an arena of power, commensurate with that of language.” In this metahistory, future and past merge to replace linear time with what Frampton described in “A Pentagram” as “stable patterns of energy.” He ended his Whitney lecture with a meditation on the supposed claim by Louis Lumière that cinema was an invention without a future. It had no future in 1895, Frampton explained, because it didn’t yet have a past. Now that it has a past, we can anticipate a future. Need I add that Frampton will play a role in this future, as he did in what now seems like the past?

Hollis Frampton’s newly restored Hapax Legomena is screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York, March 25–31.

Tom Gunning is chair of the committee on cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.