Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 33, October 2004







Matt Teichman


Prelude to the Philosophy of Hollis Frampton



Not long before his death in 1984, Hollis Frampton left us with a collection of texts entitled _Circles of Confusion_, which, although tragically out of print, stands as one of the most important events in the study of cinema. His explanation for this volume runs as follows:


'. . . a resident six year old required to know why I spent so many consecutive evenings at the bench with a film that was not my own. Because I don't understand it, I said, and he answered: 'You're not supposed to *understand* films, you're only supposed to *make* them.' It is as remedy for some such jejune superstition, I suspect, and as prophylaxis against the syndrome of manipulated, insentient valorization which it masks and sustains, that these speculations have been written during the intervening decade.' [1]


Perhaps he is being a bit hard on the boy. But were the superstition in question confined to six-year-olds (a class of individuals known, if nothing else, for their uncanny ability to revise their own blunders) there would be little need for any remedy. Unfortunately, the better part of contemporary discourse on film continues to be afflicted by the unfortunate supposition that those who make films and those who understand them are by nature distinct groups.


There was always a certain tradition within the avant-garde, stretching, let us say, from Vertov, Dulac, and Eisenstein, through Deren, Brakhage, and Kubelka, which had something to do with producing 'theory' to go along with one's films. The dominant strategy for interpreting these texts followed intuitively enough from one thing they had in common: these authors wrote about their own films. Eisenstein wrote about _Alexander Nevsky_ (1938), Deren wrote about _Ritual in Transfigured Time_ (1946), Kubelka wrote about _Schwechater_ (1958), etc. Thus, the status accorded these writings was immediately exegetical, even in places where they seemed to stray from this tendency; the theory of filmmakers was to be understood first and foremost as an interpretation of the films it treated, and evaluated according to whatever extent it illuminated them.


Faced with the writings of Hollis Frampton this mode of reading runs up against a certain difficulty: not only do his texts fail to mention a single film of his, but the scope of their concerns is singularly broad; he writes not about 'how to make good movies' or 'what he was trying to do', but about time and its quantization; about the history of the fact; about shock, eros, and artmaking; generally, about the role of cinema in that collective venture known as consciousness. What his essays bring into focus, rather than any sense that they were to be taken as an intermediate step towards the eventual realization of his films, is the sense in which for him writing and filmmaking are but two means of pursuing the very same end. This end I am inclined to refer to as philosophical inquiry.


What the view I am proposing suggests is that his films should not be conceived as examples or realizations of some aesthetic theory put into practice, but are rather themselves the very medium of intellectual exchange; recognizing that some film P is made in response to (rather than in imitation of) some film Q can become a way of legitimating filmmaking as a venue for debate. This, it seems, is the sort of scenario Frampton has in mind when he makes the claim that any artwork implies an epistemology. [2] Although a full account of the mechanism according to which a film might itself be said to 'constitute thought' remains to be given, [3] the suggestion is nonetheless tantalizing, and one which lays the groundwork for new readings of previous avant-gardists. [4] In turn, the writings in question are to be thought of not as guidebooks to the films, but as an alternate means of attacking the same (or a related) set of issues, perhaps in somewhat the same way that philosophy has traditionally made use of different forms of exposition (the dialogue vs. the prose essay, for example).


To dub Frampton a philosopher would be to misread the term most pointedly; to call him an artist would be very much the same. Yet his texts are a repeated ode to the notion that the art of misreading, if not the very fuel which sustains the human intellect, is at least one of its crucial ingredients. And as though taking them at their word were a sort of disclaimer for the bit of denotative butchery that is to follow, I would like to suggest that he be thought of as a philosopher in the tradition of Borges. You may wonder in what sense it is appropriate to use the word 'tradition' in such a context, when the closest thing that writer had to an antecedent was probably the nameless and (for our purposes) nonexistent author of the _1001 Nights_. But for Frampton it is indeed the duty of anyone engaging in deliberate human activity (the extension of that description being the *Bedeutung* around which the displaced vultures 'philosopher' and 'artist' here circle, as 'proposition' and 'picture' or 'logic' and 'mathematics' were once made to circle around a common referent) to invent traditions that almost but never quite existed. [5]


An example from one of our subject's favorite arts: during the witching hour of the 19th century David Hilbert et al. advance a formalist program under which the axioms of geometry are, as it were, read and then consciously misread. The result: whatever connections to the empirical sciences geometry has been left to cling to are discarded; it is no longer about such primitives as the point or the line, but about anything that can be made to fit the definition thereof. In other words, troubling one or several of the discipline's presuppositions by way of a new work causes it to be affected retroactively. To generalize the insight (self-consciously inherited from T. S. Eliot and Borges), any contribution to an artform encourages us 'to find out again, for every single work of art, the manner in which it is intelligible'. [6]


To whatever extent Frampton advances a philosophy, then, it is a philosophy whose foundations have been adjusted ever so slightly, in a direction towards which the field has most likely been tending anyway (as suggested by the famous line: 'A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about', [7] and the overall program of investing more energy in the formulation of questions than in the formulation of definitive answers). As the dimensions of the 'polyhedron' that is Frampton's philosophy are unsurprisingly rather staggering, I propose to subdue it temporarily by selecting one particular train of reasoning that offers the hint of a suggestion as to why anyone would be moved to consider cinema so central to the intellectual enterprise. [8]


In his most widely-read paper, 'A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative', Frampton expresses what might be called a vaguely 'Cratylan' [9] worldview in which it becomes peculiar to speak of 'things', because everything -- not only the universe, but also the greater structure of mind which apprehends it -- remains at every moment in a sort of flickering, pulsating, unstructured flux. However, within this 'blooming, buzzing confusion' [10] there are, it seems, inevitable tendencies which he calls 'stable patterns of energy', the quintessential example of which is Mount Fuji, which assumes the form of not only a physical but also an aesthetic megalith. Other examples are soon to follow:


'A waterfall is not a 'thing', nor is a flame of burning gas. Both are, rather, stable patterns of energy determining the boundaries of a characteristic sensible 'shape' in space and time . . . You and I are semistable patterns of energy, maintaining in the very teeth of entropy a characteristic shape in space and time.' [11]


'The algebraic equation 'ax + b = c' is our name for a stable pattern of energy through which an infinity of numerical tetrads may pass. A story is a stable pattern of energy through which an infinity of personages may pass, ourselves included.' [12]


So the notion 'stable pattern of energy' forks into two species: what we call physical objects (which are to include such objects as people), and narratives (which will go on to include most of what we want to call formulas, theories, and explanations). What they have in common (apart from our ability to manufacture varieties of each) is their tendency to be, if not fully unaffected by time, at least in some way more immune to its corrosive effects.


Of course, on the sensitive matter of just what time is we have yet to say very much, and the engagement of the motion picture medium with time will prove to be rather more complicated than is often assumed. Frampton's thoughts on the matter were articulated in writing as early as 1962:


'There is no such thing as time. Time is a set of conventions for bracketing qualitative variation. E-flat does not exist 'in time' relative to B-flat, before or after it: we hear them as they are sounded, which is always here and now. The adverbs *firstly* and *secondly* are pegs we use in our sentences when we wish to emphasize that those sentences imitate actions.' [13]


Note that to reject the existence of time is not to deny the existence of changes or events, but rather to deny the existence of a Platonic medium through which those changes and events take place. Frampton proposes that it doesn't make sense to say that time exists any more than it makes sense to say that something like perspective or foreshortening 'exists', because time is more like a precondition for perception.


In 'Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity' he sculpts the above position into a fuller but still metaphorical picture: memory and its mirror image, conjecture, are foggy foreground and background, folded over the plane of focus that is the present. The *decalage* between the two as they compare notes creates a sort of accumulating mental anxiety that every once in a while needs to release itself in bursts of cognitive energy. During these bursts, the mind experiences time in a notably different way; the name he gives to the experience is 'ecstatic time' (which stands in distinction to the 'historic time' of clocks, routine, and industrial capitalism). We experience ecstatic time, he writes, during sleep, erotic rapture, and moments of intense emotion (I suspect that he would also want to add intellectual epiphanies to the list, as when W. H. Fox-Talbot had the insight which eventually led him to develop photographic technology). The impossibility of documenting any of the above experiences as we undergo them ends up making it difficult to say anything substantial about the structure of ecstatic time, except that it doesn't exactly seem to 'move' the way historic time does.


A remark he makes in an essay on Muybridge [14] is crucial to understanding the import of photography in these considerations. Frampton is the only writer I know of to have pointed out that the still photograph, so-called, represents not a three-dimensional configuration of objects in the world, but a four-dimensional solid (or 'tesseract') that is the imprint of changes in those objects. How easily we forget that the camera's shutter is open not for an instant, but for an interval, a fact that was probably more obvious in an era when a portrait's subjects were made to pose for minutes at a time. Importantly, there is no linear order to such a chunk of duration because . . . how could there be? The tesseract captured by the photograph need not be analyzed into atomic units of time. For Bazin, as we recall, the photograph provides a certain psychological comfort against our feeling of mortality in virtue of the fact that it allows images of things to survive the effects of time in ways that the things themselves cannot; for Frampton the photograph provides a similar sort of comfort, but for different reasons -- what it presents us with is a suspension of duration itself.


Here we may be brought to speculate about the ontology of the cinematic image -- if the true pretext of a photograph is not a changeless Parmenidean world but a tesseract, is a film to be understood as some kind of four-dimensional animation? That would make it rather odd -- but this is precisely the sort of oddness that Frampton is after, and how the cinema gets finally to be a metaphor for the 'supreme mediator', consciousness. For it is nothing other than the intellect which originally manufactures stable patterns of energy by arresting itself; by presenting us with an intermittent barrage of such suspended durations, cinema serves as a captivating reminder of the way in which theoretical constructs, such as trees or Euclid's postulates, continue with each reapprehension to misread themselves and then emerge again in varieties that are, as the expression goes, not quite the same nor yet entirely different.


No wonder the mind's eye finds that white rectangle so magnetic.


University of Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania, USA





1. Frampton, _Circles of Confusion_, p. 8.


2. Field and Sainsbury, 'ZORNS LEMMA and HAPAX LEGOMENA, Interview with Hollis Frampton', p. 52.


3. Here a number of approaches suggest themselves as possibilities, notably pragmatics and theories of performativity.


4. For example, it becomes possible to locate Deren's discussion of the distinctions between natural and man-made forms in _An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film_ within the context of larger metaphysical debates regarding the teleological character of nature (the thesis that natural things come into existence in order to fulfill a goal). Similarly, Brakhage's repeated appeal in _Metaphors on Vision_ to the idea that language interferes with perception becomes intelligible in the context of debates concerning the relation between perception and cognition which probably reach back to Plato's _Meno_. While William Wees's work has taken some of the initial steps toward such an understanding of Brakhage, a similar exegesis of Deren's writings (though probably beyond the scope of this paper) yearns to be undertaken. 


5. My conceding that Hollis Frampton was a philosopher in the tradition of Borges, that Borges was not a philosopher, and that he didn't belong to any readily identifiable tradition, is not an attempt to get myself into a muddle. Rather, it is a way of saying that we don't really have quite the right word for the task that Frampton set for himself in his writings, but that it was at least something like philosophy, or like what philosophy would be were it more concerned with labyrinthine enigmas.


6. Frampton, _Circles of Confusion_, p. 119.


7. Wittgenstein, _Philosophical Investigations_, Part 1, 123.


8. Indeed, in 'Notes on Composing in Film' he writes, '. . . the whole history of art is no more than a massive footnote to the history of film'. (Frampton, _Circles of Confusion_, p. 123)


9. Aristotle makes the distinction between the views of Heraclitus and Cratylus in a discussion of Pre-Socratic doctrines of flux: 'Further, since they saw that all of this nature around us is in motion and that nothing true can be said about what is changing, they said it is impossible to say anything true about what undergoes every sort of change in every respect. From this view there blossomed the most extreme of the views we have mentioned, that of the self-styled Heracleitizers. This was the sort of view held by Cratylus, who ended up thinking he must say nothing, and only moved his finger. He criticized Heracleitus for saying one could not step into the same river twice; for Cratylus thought one could not do it even once.' (Metaphysics IV.5 1010a7-15)


10. William James uses the phrase 'blooming, buzzing confusion' to describe the infant's experience of seeing as a kind of raw perception, unfettered by the intervention of concepts: 'The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.' (James, _The Principles of Psychology_, p. 488) This picture of pre-linguistic perception came to have an enormous influence on Brakhage, probably through Gertrude Stein, and so was bound to reverberate through Frampton's thought, albeit in complicated ways. 


11. Frampton, _Circles of Confusion_, p. 62.


12. Ibid., p. 67.


13. Frampton and Andre, _12 Dialogues, 1962-1963_, p. 41.


14. See Frampton, _Circles of Confusion_, pp. 69-80.





Aristotle, _Aristotle: Selections_, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995).


Stan Brakhage, 'Metaphors on Vision', _Film Culture_, no. 30, Fall 1963.


Maya Deren, _An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film_ (Yonkers: Alicat Book Shop Press, 1946).


Simon Field and Peter Sainsbury, 'ZORNS LEMMA and HAPAX LEGOMENA, Interview with Hollis Frampton', _Afterimage_, no. 4, Autumn 1972.


Hollis Frampton, _Circles of Confusion: Film, Photography, Video Texts 1968-1980_ (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983).


Hollis Frampton and Carl Andre, _12 Dialogues, 1962-1963_ (New York: New York University Press, 1981).


William James, _The Principles of Psychology_ (New York: Dover Publications, 1950)


Plato, _Five Dialogues_, trans. G. M. A. Grube, revised by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002). 


William Wees, _Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).


Ludwig Wittgenstein, _Philosophical Investigations_, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1958).



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Matt Teichman, 'Prelude to the Philosophy of Hollis Frampton', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 33, October 2004 <>.















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