Metaphors on Vision By Stan Brakhage: The Quest to Overcome The Language of Seeing

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metaphors on vision stan brakhage

A still from Stan Brakhage’s short film Mothlight—the abstract visuals seek to avoid the conventions of seeing, as well as the labels of linguistic language

Metaphors on Vision, published in 1963 by Stan Brakhage, establishes the ground for his film theory, and serves as a sort of guide for understanding the boldness of his cinema. Brakhage’s film experiments not only disobey the conventions of cinema, but also seek to create a new, purer film language.  In Metaphors on Vision, he theoretically explains his disdain for the limits imposed on the nature of seeing. He also seeks to overcome the established conventions of language as a mediator of experience. If Chris Marker’s La Jetee explored the cinematic illusion of movement, and Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia focused on film’s temporality, Stan Brakhage’s experimental movies seek to overturn the established norms and rules of vision. The McGurk effect demonstrates the unreliability of the human visual perception, but it is not the technical or mechanical effect of seeing that Brakhage wants to destroy. Rather, In Metaphors on Vision, he expresses a philosophical contempt towards the linguistic and conceptual confines of vision, towards the conventional labels of signification. Brakhage is calling for a method of seeing and depicting which does not answer the question “What is this?” with a simple label (e.g. “green grass”), but rather beholds the image in its natural richness and ambiguity.

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 the 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.”

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.

Metaphors on Vision & Structural Linguistics

To understand the linguistic influence of seeing which for Brakhage is “prejudice,” it helps to relate it to the ideas of structural linguistics and Ferdinand Saussure’s concepts of the signifier and the signified. Saussure’s theory of semiotics, which he developed in the early 20th century, described language as an arbitrary structure of signs which derive their meaning through their context within the structure of language, and not through a “natural” connection to reality. Saussure rejected the objectivist view of language as an accurate and universal representation of the outside world, and instead described it as an inherently closed set of concepts through which meaning is created.

Saussure broke down the sign into a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the absolutely arbitrary label which stands for the thing it represents, the signified. The signifier is not universal, but rather depends on the structure it is used in, or in other words the specific language and the context. “Chair” stands for the thing it represents in English not because of a universal connection between the object and the word, but simply because of the conventions of the structure called English language. Similarly, the relation of a chair to the word “стул” in Russian is just as random.

Understanding the immediate and the broader philosophical implications of structural linguistics helps to understand Brakhage’s  “world before the ‘beginning was the word.'” In a sense, he is describing a world, or a method of seeing, which experiences the sign completely ignoring the signifier, and instead observing the universal, primordial signified. Avoiding the shackles of language which impose the signifier “Green,” Brakhage’s baby is able to experience the unbridled multiplicity of the signified color of the grass.

Structural linguistics is closely related to the 20th century tendency for loss of belief in objective reality and the ability to experience it. Along with Einstein’s theory of relativity, it marked the beginning of a century of doubt, and it underpinned the existential scepticism of modernism, Dada, and postmodernism. As Richard Sheppard put it in his book “Modernism—Dada—Postmodernism” (page 62-63):

Language for the modernists proved to be […] limited. Although language feels as though it has some absolume and divinely legitimized status to those who live “inside” it, it is actually a relative ad continuously evolving system of arbitrary signs. As such, it has no a priori connection with reality: there is no one-to-one correspondence between immutable material objects and a noun-based syntax that names and orders those objects. […]

During the modernist period, science, dealing with even more elusive matters, ran parallel with philosophy and linguistics on the question of language. When [Werner] Heisenberg and [Niels] Bohr first met, […] Bohr replied as follows to a question of Heisenberg’s about the nature of the language he was using to describe atomic and subatomic relationships: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors On Vision expresses the ineptitude and limitations of conventional seeing governed by language. But in the broader context of modernism, it also rejects the limitations on experiencing reality—limitations created by the “man-made laws of perspective.”

Metaphors on Vision: Brakhage’s New Language of Vision

Brakhage’s experiments in cinema are thus a part of the general modernist movement away from naturalism and towards abstraction, a parallel to the new art perspective created (among many others) by cubists George Braque and Pablo Picasso, futurists Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, and later abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. In literature, e.e. cummings and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti made similar experiments towards fragmentation and destruction of conventional speech.

Brakhage himself references these cross-disciplinary tendencies, once again drawing a comparison between cinematic and linguistic language:

If one were to turn an adventuring eye to literary correspondence, fascimilating visual adventure with similarly adverturing literature, transforming optic abstract impressions into non-representational language, enchanting non-sights into non-words, one could write only sound poems, the audio manifestation of letters not being restricted to a pre-determined logic and rather communicating on an emotional level only distantly related to all the known word origins of any written sound. Within that distant relationship is the embryonic form of a purely onomatopoetic art. The visual parallel of this art is being created by men already termed “abstract expressionist” who are fashioning the symbol-cuneiform-hieroglyphic-letters for future communication.

Metaphors On Vision: Stan Brakhage About Film Editing

Francis Ford Coppola once said “The essence of cinema is editing.” Similarly, Brakhage also emphasized the influence of film editing. And once again, he expresses his

In the act of editing film I am enough detached from motion to be directly involved with the move meant [space by Brakhage]. Whereas, while either photographing or viewing the projected results, my eye movements are so inter-related to the movements of whatever is being photographed or viewed as to render the experience unmentionable. But when motion is perceived through the viewing of series of still images in their arrangement on a strip of celluloid, my eye inhabits a dimension other than what it perceives, a move being only represented, needing eye’s per-or-in-ception, being therefore capable of rela-transla-or-transforma-tion, being therefore then a move mentionable. Yet I also set these images in motion, thru an editing viewer, and allow the activity of my eye to inhabit their moving space. […]

I always found it superficially easy to edit for the commercial film industry, which isn’t even concerned with the statement that a strip of film has to offer but only with what it represents. Most commercial film editors make the mistake of viewing what they are to put together through movieolas, mechanisms which confuse them even more than an editor by rendering the stilled images as emotionally involving as if projected.

You can read Metaphors On Vision by Stan Brakhage here (the passage quoted in this article starts on page 30).