Reintroducing Metaphors on Vision

As he was entering his artistic maturity, barely a decade after making his first film, Stan Brakhage published Metaphors on Vision (1963). It was then and still remains the most radical work of film theory. In it Brakhage repudiated all the dominant categories of cinematic poetics—shots, montage, scripts, sound, plot, actors, mise-en-scène, depth of field, lenses. None has a place in his polemical concept of cinematic vision. His analysis of “The Camera Eye” and the ideological baggage that comes with various kinds of equipment and film theaters preceded by at least five years the first formulations of the “apparatus theory” emanating from France after 1968, which would come to dominate academic film studies in the U.S. in the seventies. Between 1958 and 1963, his book and the films he made while writing it transformed the way young American avant-garde filmmakers thought about their art.

Whereas Maya Deren had initiated the theory of the American avant-garde cinema by accepting the filmic apparatus as a given and extolling its “objective” rendering of reality, Brakhage decried its ideological manipulations, urging filmmakers to wrestle with optical and mechanical norms in order to approximate their idiosyncratic visual experiences.

In the initial chapters Brakhage addresses himself to the status of cinematic iconography in a polemic against fear (“Metaphors on Vision”) and an essay about the constrictions of the filmic apparatus (“The Camera Eye”). Behind these early passages are an implied set of convictions: (1) the eyes are always moving, scanning in response to all visual stimuli; (2) vision never stops: the eyes see phosphenes when closed and dreams when asleep; (3) the names for things and for sensible qualities blunt our vision to nuances and varieties in the visible world; (4) normative religion hypostatizes the power of language over sight (“In the beginning was the word”) in order to legislate behavior through fear; (5) the only self-conscious and aesthetically responsible use of language is poetry; (6) only through an educated and comprehensive encounter with literature and art can a visual artist hope to gain release from the dominance of language over seeing; there can be no naive, untutored vision; and (7) the artist is repeatedly challenged to sacrifice the gratifications of the ego and the will to the unpredictable demands of artistic inspiration.

In addition to these chapters, Metaphors on Vision reflects and contains excerpts from the filmmaker’s massive correspondence with poets he admired: Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Parker Tyler, Robert Kelly, and Michael McClure. The spirits of both Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound haunt this difficult text, which is written in dense, pun-encrusted prose to keep the reader from ever forgetting the barrier of language every theory of vision confronts.

When copies of the first edition published by Film Culture were exhausted, the journal issued a second printing in 1976 without correcting the numerous errors in the original. Now Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry have published a luxurious new edition, reproducing the Fluxus original, followed by a corrected text, with all the variant readings and supplemented by extensive footnotes restoring the manuscript exclusions and illuminating obscurities with the help of Brakhage’s correspondence. Here, excerpted for the first time, is the opening chapter of Metaphors, as annotated for the 2017 edition, containing some of the filmmaker’s most influential statements.

Metaphors on Vision

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.” [1]

To see is to retain—to behold. Elimination of all fear is in sight—which must be aimed for. Once vision may have been given—that which seems inherent in the infant’s eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.

But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot. [2] Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.

Suppose the Vision of the saint and the artist to be an increased ability to see—vision. Allow so-called hallucination to enter the realm of perception, allowing that mankind always finds derogatory terminology for that which doesn’t appear to be readily usable, accept dream visions, day-dreams or night-dreams, as you would so-called real scenes, even allowing that the abstractions which move so dynamically when closed eyelids are pressed are actually perceived. Become aware of the fact that you are not only influenced by the visual phenomenon which you are focused upon and attempt to sound the depths of all visual influence. There is no need for the mind’s eye to be deadened after infancy, yet in these times the development of visual understanding is almost universally forsaken.

This is an age which has no symbol for death other than the skull and bones of one stage of decomposition...and it is an age which lives in fear of total annihilation. It is a time haunted by sexual sterility yet almost universally incapable of perceiving the phallic nature of every destructive manifestation of itself. It is an age which artificially seeks to project itself materialistically into abstract space and to fulfill itself mechanically because it has blinded itself to almost all external reality within eyesight and to the organic awareness of even the physical movement properties of its own perceptibility. The earliest cave paintings discovered demonstrate that primitive man had a greater understanding than we do that the object of fear must be objectified. The entire history of erotic magic is one of the possession of fear thru the beholding of it. The ultimate searching visualization has been directed toward God out of the deepest possible human understanding that there can be no ultimate love where there is fear. Yet in this contemporary time how many of us even struggle to deeply perceive our own children? [3]

The artist has carried the tradition of vision and visualization down through the ages. In the present time a very few have continued the process of visual perception in its deepest sense and transformed their inspirations into cinematic experiences. They create a new language made possible by the moving picture image. They create where fear before them has created the greatest necessity. They are essentially preoccupied by and deal imagistically with—birth, sex, death, and the search for God.

1. John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
2. Brakhage derived this expression from Ezra Pound’s phrase unwobbling pivot, a translation of Confucius’s doctrine zhong yong (Confucius, The Unwobbling Pivot & the Great Digest, trans. Ezra Pound [Norfolk, CT: Pharos, 1947]). Apparently, Brakhage was unaware of (or unconcerned about) its Confucian meaning; for Arthur Waley translated zhong yong as “middle use” and Burton Watson as “the doctrine of the mean.”
3. Brakhage wrote “our own children” in 1960 and let it stand in the 1963 publication, despite his attack (insisting that the intensifier signified possession) on the adjective in the book’s introductory interview.

Out of print for over forty years, Metaphors on Vision has just been republished by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry, with a new introduction by Sitney, and is available here . For more on Brakhage, check out our related post about the recent publication of a collection of interviews by the filmmaker.

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