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On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

Edited by Bruce Jenkins, MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England.

During the mid-1970s, Hollis Frampton gave a course on “The New American Cinema.” The requirement was that students keep a journal responding to the films seen in the class. A few years later, when I was a graduate student, Frampton told me that, while reviewing the journals, he spent several hundred dollars in long distance telephone calls—a sum now impossible to conceive—reading to various friends across the country the response of one student to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks: “A young man tries unsuccessfully to join the Navy.”

A limit case: on the one hand, perversely accurate; on the other, so far beside the point, as to defy all but psychoanalytic comprehension.

Perhaps this important publication will receive better treatment. Perhaps.

Frampton’s writings are at once uniquely personal and symptomatic of an important time in American intellectual history, the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, a time which has become another era. Because his writings have long been out of print, his photographs largely unpublished and unexhibited and because his films, with a few pirated electronic exceptions and one recent official selection on dvd, circulate only on 16mm, Frampton’s importance as an artist and intellectual has become obscured. His digital work remains almost completely unknown. For me, he is the key figure for tracking the transition from late Modernism to whatever comes after.

A small but potent sampling of Frampton’s writings was collected in Circles of Confusion published by the Visual Studies Workshop in 1983, a year before Frampton’s death at the age of 48. It mainly collects his essays from Artforum and October. That rare volume carries an introduction by Annette Michelson, Frampton’s friend and intellectual cohort, who had published them originally. Why these important writings remained out of print until now is a subject of gossipy speculation. Only the scanner, the internet and a devoted few have kept them in circulation.

The current volume was edited by Bruce Jenkins, currently a Dean at the Art Institute of Chicago. Jenkins wrote his PhD thesis on Frampton and knew Frampton when Jenkins lived in Buffalo and worked at Gerald O’Grady’s now defunct Media Study Buffalo, a public access production and screening facility of the 70s. I came to know Bruce and Hollis during the years of 1978-81, which I spent in Buffalo as a graduate student, then as a film curator at Hallwalls Gallery.

The title of this new volume is a highly studied Framptonism. One of the prices paid for engagement with Frampton’s colossal intelligence is the tendency to imitate his patterns of speech and tone of voice. Some will have already noted this in the present review, though I haven’t yet indulged in Frampton’s treasured litotes, a figure not unimportant in conveying Frampton’s intellectual strategies.

Frampton’s voice is the product of an apprenticeship with Ezra Pound as well as wide-ranging literary, scientific, mathematical and linguistic erudition. Frampton was a classmate at Andover of Frank Stella and Carl Andre, where he received an excellent classical education, but was largely an autodidact. He made pointed use of de- as a prefix, where one might expect something else: devolve, denumerate, deploy. He is prone to refer to pretext, proto-cinema, and para-praxis. He is one of the main carriers of Octoberlalia. He plays on the registers of jargon, adapting that of others and creating his own. He is an encyclopedist, but as a devoted reader of Borges and an appreciator of Bouvard et Pécuchet, he guards a sense of irony. He loves fabulation even more than citation.

Frampton’s method is at once dialectical (the negation of the negation) and deconstructive. His travel on the via negativa is comparable to Debord’s, though divergences are instructive: Frampton symptomatically relies on the classical double negation of litotes, Debord on the chiasmic inversion of the genitive, of the early Marx. Frampton is a distanced fabulist who has difficulties with the first person singular; he sides with Borges’s “new refutation of time.” He traces the “radical” to its etymology of “getting at the root of things.” Debord attempts, within commodity culture, to construct a radical subjectivity, both theoretically and practically engaged in the construction of history. The two converge in their devotion to allusion, irony and alcohol; both made films which are palindromes.

On the Camera Arts… presents Frampton’s writings in 5 categories: Photography, Film, Video and Digital Arts, The Other Arts, and Texts. Large, nearly equal sections are given to Photography and Film, the arenas of Frampton’s most esteemed accomplishments and insights. Each section contains Frampton’s most eminent published texts, some unpublished materials, and materials inaccessible for their rarity.

Besides Frampton’s monumental contributions to Photographic Criticism previously published in Circles of Confusion, of special note is the early unpublished text, “Some Propositions on Photography,” as well as two texts on Les Krims. The texts on Krims may create other ripples. Krims was included in nearly every major survey of photography of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade, had been silently purged from the histories by a wave of political correctness. Frampton compared him to Hogarth.In the film section, to be relished are “Mental Notes,” a previously unpublished interview with Frampton conducted by Adele Friedman, and the unpublished but notorious letter to Donald Richie, then film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. To be found as well is a complete selection of better-known texts, such as “A Lecture,” “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative,” and “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses.”

The representation of Frampton’s writings on Video and Digital Media, the third phase of his engagement with the Media Arts, is at best a beginning. There is certainly a great deal more to be selected, edited and published, though it is often couched in an ancient dialect of Z-80 assembly language. But even with only reading knowledge of it, Frampton’s terse comments on his code would surely edify and amuse those now variously engaged with digital media.By the time we reach the section on “The Other Arts” and Frampton’s “Texts” we confront the taxonomic perplexities of Borges’s Chinese Encyclopedia: things belonging to the emperor, things under a chair, etc.

As for pictures, the good news is: what I presume is the entirety of ADSVMVS ABSVMVS, is reproduced. The bad news: little else of Frampton’s work in photography is represented. A significant sampling of film stills or strips would have also greatly increased the value of this work, though just as clearly its retail price. I hope for a Complete Cinematographic Works on DVD, or whatever the current medium will be, in whatever future in which that might take place. At the dawn of the age of the video disk, Frampton actually spoke of such a possibility. Reproductions of works by the photographers about which Frampton writes are also missed.

The most glaring omission, however, is the paltry selection of interviews with Frampton about his work in film, clearly the best source for understanding Frampton’s film praxis, his wit, and what is arguably Frampton’s most characteristic mode of address: the dialogue. OK, they are usually monologues where Frampton hits every pitch over the plate out of the park. The why is easy to understand: including them would have tripled the size of the volume, delayed its publication another few decades and significantly increased the cost. More of Frampton’s voluminous correspondence would also have been of interest as would, the vast unpublished transcripts of Frampton’s lectures from his Frampton on Frampton course at the Center for Media Study and his now out rare 12 dialogues with Carl André.

A final note: though publication data is scrupulously given, the scholarly apparatus for the volume is thin; given Frampton’s erudition and allusiveness, more footnotes would seem welcome. The editor suggests that decoding the allusions be undertaken as a treasure hunt; I take this choice as an act of strategic modesty on Jenkins’s part. During Frampton’s lifetime (pre-Google), his erudition often inspired sufficient curiosity to birth reading lists. So, there is something gained by this omission in minimizing the mediation of the text and in promoting enlightened curiosity. And in our time, Google may provide some clues.

Jenkins is to be highly praised for his concerted efforts to keep Frampton’s icebergian legacy within our view. Don’t let this one get away from you; decades may again elapse before we catch another official glimpse.

To summarize, let me invoke two dialectically opposed Framptonisms: while I am not “happy as a pig in shit,” this is decidedly “better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” 


Keith Sanborn


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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