by Hollis Frampton

The cinematograph is an invention without a future.
— Louis Lumière

Once upon a time, according to reliable sources, history had its own Muse, and her name was Clio. She presided over the making of a class of verbal artifacts that extends from a half-light written legend through, possibly, Gibbon.

These artifacts shared the assumption that events are numerous and replete beyond the comprehension of a single mind. They proposed no compact systematic substitute for their concatenated world; rather, they made up an open set of rational fictions within that world.

As made things strong in their own immanence, these fictions bid as fairly for our contemplative energy as any other human fabrication. They are, finally, about what it felt like to reflect consciously upon the qualities of experience in the times they expound.

In order to generate insights into the formal significance of their pretext (that is, “real history”), such fictions employ two tactics. First of all, they annihilate naive intuitions of causality by deliberately ignoring mere temporal chronology. And then, to our cultural dismay, they dispense, largely, with the fairly recent inventions we call facts.

These fictions were what we may call metahistories of event. They remain events in themselves.


It is reasonable to assume that Dean Swift, desiring in his rage to confound the West, invented the fact.

A fact is the indivisible module out of which systematic substitutes for experience are built. Hugh Kenner, in The Counterfeiters, cites a luminous anecdote from the seed-time of the fact. Swift’s contemporary savants fed dice to a dog. They (the dice) passed through the dog visibly unchanged, but with their weight halved. Thenceforth a dog was to be defined as a device for (among other things) halving the weight of dice.

The world contained only a denumerable list of things. Any thing could be considered simply as the intersection of a finite number of facts. Knowledge, then, was the sum of all discoverable facts.

Very many factual daubs were required, of course, to paint a true picture of the world; but the invention of the fact represented, from the rising mechanistic point of view, a gratifying diminution of horsepower requirement from a time when knowledge had been the factorial of all conceivable contexts. It is this shift in the definition of knowledge that Swift satirizes in Gulliver’s Travels, and Pope laments in The Dunciad.

The new view went unquestioned for generations. In most quarters it still obtains: from which it should be quite clear that we do not all live in the same time.


Who first centered his thumbs on Clio’s windpipe is anyone’s guess, but I am inclined to blame Gotthold Lessing. His squabbling progeny, the quaintly disinterested art historians of the 19th century, lent a willing hand in finishing her off. They had Science behind them. Science favored the fact because the fact seemed to favor predictability. Hoping to incorporate prophecy wholesale into their imperium, 19th-century historians went whole hog for the fact, and headfirst into what James Joyce later called the “nightmare” of history.

There were, quite simply, too many facts.

They adopted the self-contradictory stratagem of “selecting” quintessential samples, and conjuring from them hundred-legged theories of practically everything. They had backed themselves into a discriminatory trap, and Werner Heisenberg wasn’t there to save them: it was a time of utmost certainty.


Isaac Newton spent the last part of his life writing a score of Latin volumes on religion: the nascent atomization of knowledge was a fierce wind from which he took shelter in his age. As young physicists, he and Leibniz had inherited the analytic geometry of Descartes, and the triumph of its use by Kepler to predict the motions of the planets. Algebraic equations dealt well enough with the conic sections, but Newton was absorbed by the motion of bodies that describe more intricate paths.

Complex movement in space and time was difficult to make over into numbers. The number “one” was much too large; the mathematical fact must be vastly smaller. Even the arithmetic unit was surely an immense structure built of tiny stones: infinitesimal calculi, indivisible increments.

Given that much, it was a short step to the assumption that motion consists of an endless succession of brief instants during which there is only stillness. Then motion could be factually described as the set of differences among a series of static postures.

Zeno had returned with his paradoxes to avenge himself through the deadpan Knight of Physics.


In the 1830’s, Georg Büchner wrote Woyzeck. Évariste Galois died, a victim of political murder, leaving to a friend a last letter which contains the foundations of group theory, or the metahistory of mathematics. Fox-Talbot and Nièpce invented photography. The Belgian physicist Plâteau invented the phenakistoscope, the first true cinema.

In the history of cinema these four facts are probably unrelated. In the metahistory of cinema, these four events may ultimately be related.

Fox-Talbot and Nièpce invented photography because neither of them could learn to draw, a polite accomplishment comparable to the mastery of the tango later and elsewhere.

Plâteau had the calculus in his mother’s milk, so that its assumptions were for him mere reflex. He took an interest in sense-perception and discovered, by staring at the sun for twenty minutes, one of our senses’ odder failings, euphemistically called “persistence of vision.”

His hybridization of a sensory defect with the Newtonian infinitesimal began vigorously to close a curve whose limbs had been widening since the invention of the alphabet.

Plâteau little device started putting Humpty-Dumpty together again. Like dozens of other dead end marvels, it became a marketable toy, and was succeeded by generically similar novelties: zoetrope, praktinoscope, zoopraxiscope.

All of them, unconsciously miming the intellectual process they instigated, took the form of spliceless loops: an eternity of hurdling horses and bouncing balls.

And they were all hand-drawn. Photography was not mapped back upon the sparse terrain of paleocinema until the first photographic phenaskistoscope was made, three generations later.


The union of cinema and the photographic effect followed a clumsy mutual seduction spanning six decades. There was a near assignation in the vast oeuvre of Eadweard Muybridge, before whose fact-making battery of cameras thousands paraded their curiously obsolete bodies.

In one sequence, piercingly suggestive of future intricacies, the wizard himself, a paunchy naked old man, carried a chair into the frame, sat down, and glared ferociously back at his cameras.

But the series suggested to Muybridge only the ready-made analogy of book space: successive, randomly accessible, anisotropic with respect to time. Accordingly, he published them as editions of plates.

The crucial tryst was postponed, to await the protection of two brothers bearing the singularly appropriate name of Lumière.


The relationship between cinema and still photography is supposed to present a vexed question. Received wisdom on the subject is of the chicken/egg variety: cinema somehow “accelerates” still photography into motion.

Implicit is the assumption that cinema is a special case of the catholic still photograph. Since there is no discoverable necessity within the visual logic of still photographs that demands such “acceleration,” it is hard to see how it must ever happen at all.

It is an historic commonplace that the discovery of special cases precedes in time the extrapolation of general laws. (For instance, the right triangle with rational sides measuring 3, 4, and 5 units is older than Pythagoras.) Photography predates the photographic cinema.

So I propose to extricate cinema from this circular maze by superimposing on it a second labyrinth (containing an exit) – by positing something that has by now begun to come to concrete actuality: we might agree to call it an infinite cinema.

A polymorphous camera has always turned, and will turn forever, its lens focused upon all the appearances of the world. Before the invention of still photography, the frames of the infinite cinema were blank, black leader; then a few images began to appear upon the endless ribbon of film. Since the birth of the photographic cinema, all the frames are filled with images.

There is nothing in the structural logic of the cinema film strip that precludes sequestering any single image. A still photography is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.


History views the marriage of cinema and the photograph as one of convenience; metahistory must look upon it as one of necessity.

The camera deals, in some way or other, with every particle of information present within the field of view; it is wholly indiscriminate. Photographs, to the joy or misery of all who make them, invariably tell us more than we want to know.

The ultimate structure of a photographic image seems to elude us at the same rate as the ultimate structure of any other natural object. Unlike graphic images, which decay under close scrutiny into factual patterns of dots or lines, the photograph seems a virtually perfect continuum. Hence the poignancy of its illusions: their amplitude instantly made the photograph – within the very heart of mechanism – the subversive restorer of contextual knowledge seemingly coterminous with the whole sensible world.

Cinema could already claim – from within the same nexus – a complementary feat: the resurrection of bodies in space from their dismembered trajectories.

The expected consummation took place at quitting time in a French factory, on a sunny afternoon towards the end of the century, as smiling girls waved and cheered. The immediate issue was an exceptional machine.


Typically, all that survives intact of an era is the art form it invents for itself. Potsherds and garbage dumps are left from neolithic times, but the practice of painting continues unbroken from Lascaux to the present. We may surmise that music comes to us from a more remote age, when the cables were first strung for the vertebrate nervous system.

Such inventions originally served the end of sheer survival. The nightingale sings to charm the ladies. Cave paintings presumably assisted the hunt; poems, Confucius tells us in the Analects, teach the names of animals and plants: survival of our species depends upon our having correct information at the right time.

As one era slowly dissolves into the next, some individuals metabolize the former means for physical survival into new means for psychic survival. These latter we call art. They promote the life of human consciousness by nourishing our affections, by reincarnating our perceptual substance, by affirming, imitating, reifying the process of consciousness.

What I am suggesting, to put it quite simply, is that no activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended and it has dwindled, as an aid to gut survival, into total obsolescence.


I was born during the Age of Machines.

A machine was a thing made up of distinguishable “parts,” organized in imitation of some function of the human body. Machines were said to “work.” How a machine “worked” was readily apparent to an adept, from inspection of the shape of its “parts.” The physical principles by which machines “worked” were intuitively verifiable.

The cinema was the typical survival-form of the Age of Machines. Together with its subset of still photographs, it performed prize-worthy functions: it taught and reminded us (after what then seemed a bearable delay) how things looked, how things worked, how to do things... and, of course (by example), how to feel and think.

We believe it would go on forever, but when I was a little boy, the Age of Machines ended. We should not be misled by the electric can opener: small machines proliferate now as though they were going out of style because they are doing precisely that.

Cinema is the Last Machine. It is probably the last art that will reach the mind through the senses.

It is customary to mark the end of the Age of Machines at the advent of video. The point in time is imprecise: I prefer radar, which replaced the mechanical reconnaissance aircraft with a static anonymous black box. Its introduction coincides quite closely with the making of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, and Willard Maas’ Geography of the Body.

The notion that there was some exact instant at which the tables turned, and cinema passed into obsolescence and thereby into art, is an appealing fiction that implies a special task for the metahistorian of cinema.


The historian of cinema faces an appalling problem. Seeking in his subject some principle of intelligibility, he is obliged to make himself responsible for every frame of film in existence. For the history of cinema consists precisely of every film that has ever been made, for any purpose whatsoever.

Of the whole corpus the likes of Potemkin make up a numbingly small fraction. The balance includes instructional films, sing-alongs, endoscopic cinematography, and much, much more. The historian dares neither select nor ignore, for if he does, the treasure will surely escape him.

The metahistorian of cinema, on the other hand, is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art.

Such works may not exist, and then it is his duty to make them. Or they may exist already, somewhere outside the intentional precincts of the art (for instance, in the prehistory of cinematic art, before 1943). And then he must remake them.


There is no evidence in the structural logic of the filmstrip that distinguishes “footage” from a “finished” work. Thus, any piece of film may be regarded as “footage,” for use in any imaginable way to construct or reconstruct a new work.

Therefore, it may be possible for the metahistorian to take old work as “footage,” and construct from it identical new work necessary to a tradition.

Wherever this is possible, through loss or damage, new footage must be made. The result will be perfectly similar to the earlier work, but “almost infinitely richer.”[1]


Cinema is a Greek word that means “movie.” The illusion of movement is certainly an accustomed adjunct of the film image, but that illusion rests upon the assumption that the rate of change between successive frames may vary only within rather narrow limits. There is nothing in the structural logic of the filmstrip that can justify such an assumption. Therefore we reject it. From now on we will call our art simply: film.

The infinite film contains an infinity of endless passages wherein no frame resembles any other in the slightest degree, and a further infinity of passages wherein successive frames are as nearly identical as intelligence can make them.


I have called film the Last Machine.

From what we can recall of them, machines agreed roughly with mammals in range of size. The machine called film is an exception.

We are used to thinking of camera and projector as machines, but they are not. They are “parts.” The flexible film strip is as much a “part” of the film machine as the projectile is part of a firearm. The extant rolls of film out-bulk the other parts of the machine by many orders of magnitude.

Since all the “parts” fit together, the sum of all film, all projectors and all cameras in the world constitute one machine, which is by far the largest and most ambitious single artifact yet conceived and made by man (with the exception of the human species itself). The machine grows by many millions of feet of raw stock every day.

It is not surprising that something so large could utterly engulf and digest the whole substance of the Age of Machines (machines and all), and finally supplant the entirety with its illusory flesh. Having devoured all else, the film machine is the lone survivor.

If we are indeed doomed to the comically convergent task of dismantling the universe, and fabricating from its stuff an artifact called The Universe, it is reasonable to suppose that such an artifact will resemble the vaults of an endless film archive built to house, in eternal cold storage, the infinite film.


If film strip and projector are parts of the same machine, then “a film” may be defined operationally as “whatever will pass through a projector.” The least thing that will do that is nothing at all. Such a film has been made. It is the only unique film in existence.


Twenty years ago, in the grip of adolescent needs to “modernize” myself, I was entranced by Walter Pater’s remark that “all the arts aspire to the condition of music,” which I then understood to approve of music’s freedom from reference to events outside itself.

Now I expound, and attempt to practice, an art that feeds upon illusions and references despised or rejected by other arts. But it occurs to me that film meets what may be, after all, the prime condition of music: it produces no object.

The western musician does not ordinarily make music; his notation encodes a set of instructions for those who do. A score bears the sort of resemblance to music that the genetic helix bears to a living organism. To exist, music requires to be performed, a difficulty that John Cage abjures in the preface to A Year from Monday, where he points out that making music has hitherto largely consisted in telling other people what to do.

The act of making a film, of physically assembling the film strip, feel somewhat like making an object: that film artists have seized the materiality of film is of inestimable importance, and film certainly invites examination at this level. But at the instant the film is completed, the “object” vanishes. The film strip is an elegant device for modulating standardized beams of energy. The phantom work itself transpires upon the screen as its notation is expended by a mechanical virtuoso performer, the projector.


The metahistorian of film generates for himself the problem of deriving a complete tradition from nothing more than the most obvious material limits of the total film machine. It should be possible, he speculates, to pass from The Flicker through Unsere Afrikareise, or Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, or La région centrale[2] and beyond, in finite steps (each step a film), by exercising only one perfectly rational option at each move. The problem is analogous to that of the Knight’s Tour in chess.

Understood literally, it is insoluble, hopelessly so. The paths open to the Knight fork often (to reconverge, who knows where). The board is a matrix of rows and columns beyond reckoning, whereon no chosen starting point may be defended with confidence.

Nevertheless, I glimpse the possibility of constructing a film that will be a kind of synoptic conjugation of such a tour – a Tour of Tours, so to speak, of the infinite film, or of all knowledge, which amounts to the same thing. Rather, some such possibility presents itself insistently to my imagination, disguised as the germ of a plan for execution[3].


Film has finally attracted his own Muse. Her name is Insomnia.

Eaton, New York
June 1971

Notes, by Bruce Jenkins:

[1] The quotation is a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s 1939 short story Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, in which Borges describes the (fictional) character Menard’s attempts to exceed the act of mere translation by producing a text that “would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” According to Borges, “The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” See Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 52. (B.J.)

[2] Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1965-1966), Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1961-1966), Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969-1971), and Michael Snow’s La région centrale (1971) were films made by Frampton’s contemporaries that explored the materiality of the medium. (B.J.)

[3] This is an early reference to Frampton’s massive film cycle Magellan, which he began in 1972, the year after he wrote this essay. Magellan remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1984. (B.J.)

(Artforum vol. 10, n.º 1, September 1971. Republished in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, Bruce Jenkins [ed.], Massachussets: The MIT Press, 2009, pp. 131-139)





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