Opsis Spring 1984
By TONY REIF
Opsis is defined in the Oxford Greek dictionary as follows:
I. objective: aspect, appearance of a person or thing; countenance, face; visual impression or image of an object. 2. thing seen, sight. 3. vision, apparition.
II. subjective: power of sight or seeing, vision; act of seeing or looking, sense of sight; (plural) organs of sight, eyes; (medical) iris of the eye, also pupil; of the visual rays which were supposed to proceed from the eyes. 2. view, sight (i.e. presence); dignity, position.
The word survives in English in synopsis (together + sight), and in autopsy (self+seeing; as Brakhage reminds us, "the act of seeing with one's own eyes"). What is most remarkable about the Greek original, at least to one who is neither a scholar of Greek nor of philosophy, is that it seems to imply an integral vision of vision (as does "sight", from Old English). Not for them a clear separation between subject and object, observer and observed - nor for us either, really, since relativity and especially since the Heisenberg principle (1927). It was Aristotle who con tested Empedocles' epistemology, which linked the viewer to the object of perception through rays emanating from the organ of sight: But as a metaphorical description of vision it strikes richer chords than our vulgar empiricism of photons exciting the retina, because it asserts that the faculty of sight is an active agency linked to mind.
The Greek word opsis suggests to me that how ever compromised human perception may be - formed as it is by habit, determined by the accidental events of our individual lives and chan neled by history and ideology as manifest in language and culture, patterned at a deeper level still by the neurobiology of eye and brain and the infant's relationship with mother (here the first dichotomy, the primal paradigm of presence / absence that will henceforth color all vision and desire) - that in spite of these limitations, perception is a mental activity, and thus open to conscious as well as unconscious direction and modification.
Open also to love?
Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred Our eyes, upon one double string...
As 'twixt two equall Armies, Fate
suspends uncertaine victorie,
Our soules, (which to advance their state,
Were gone out,) hung 'twixt her, and mee.
And whil'st our soules negotiate there,
Wee like sepulchrall statues lay;
All day... ("The Extasie")
If Donne fresh-minted the metaphors of the traditional Greek description ultimately to embody an orthodox (Christian) metaphysical vision, are we in danger of creating new orthodoxies out of descriptions of reality perhaps equally limited? Integrity in film studies escapes us in our elaboration of positions based on the models of linguistics, Marxism, psychoanalysis. For the Greeks, it would seem from the definition of opsis, the "objective" vision or apparition was in some way identical with the "subjective" power of seeing, the place of sight and the dignity of the perceiver. "Objectively", cinema is a set of grammars, a symptom of economics and ideologies, a record of the psycho-social structurings of personality. "Subjectively", it is a practice, an art, a generator of meaningful experiences. To encompass film's impact, we must somehow synthesize the powerful tools for its analysis as an institution, with the equally wide-ranging and variable individual responses to it of those for whom it matters.
We should continue to develop our abilities to use cinema to probe the descriptions of reality we live by. In this age of the mediated image, cinema itself is one of the most pervasive and standardiz ing descriptors of all, so we'll use cinema to probe itself too. But we should also use it for the glimpses it can provide of descriptions other than those that have formed us - not only those documented but forgotten descriptions from hundreds of different cultures over thousands of years, but also the intensely imagined descriptions - potential realities - of our contemporary seers.
In Opsis we will use words to challenge images, images to contest words. We will also encourage debate between the fixed positions of rival theo ries, for the same reason that opposing views of a particular work can strike unexpected sparks. Cinema cannot be encapsulated by any system of signs and codes, however useful and necessary such systems may be to an understanding of cinematic structures and the ideological matrix in which they signify. I agree with Don Frederickson, writing in Quarterly Review of Film Studies 4:2 and 5:4, that the linguistic model is ultimately reductive, because cinema can also involve a discourse of symbols and archetypes - a dialogue with the unknown (symbols) as well as the known or knowable (signs). If this is so, then we are thrown back - back from both theoretical and inductive reasoning, from the logical positivism of science as well as the materialist praxis of Marxist dialectics - onto "raw" experience itself.
It is just as necessary to attend to the vision of a film or other work of art as to the view or position that shapes that primary experience (and greatly determines our thought about it). Of course, this vision is neither "pure" nor neutral: I am not advocating the primacy of experience, nor proposing any particular idealistic conception that could justify such a position. Yet, as the sum total of a person's living and lived experience, that leading edge on which we each move into a new moment, is in some way greater than the interlace of induction and deduction that structures our thinking, so artistic practice on that leading edge also has the potential to transcend the categories that define an artistic discipline and the theoretical discourse around it.
At its best, art can suggest new paradigms for the reality of its time and place, rather than merely reflecting already existing formulations. However, a real openness to the new, on the part of both artist and audience, usually is the result of an often hard-won struggle to identify the determinants of self, the hidden ideological agendas that program response. Every opening to what is is accompanied by a consolidation of understanding of what has just been, the previous context seen for a moment whole.
A thorough critique of radical artistic practice involves a synthesis of theory and analysis with perception/experience and value (what Dudley Andrew has referred to as the "surplus of meaning" of good art). To understand film, video and the other image arts/media, we need to work forwards and backwards simultaneously on several "fronts" - from theories to practices to theories, from perceptions to cognitions to perceptions, and from the producer (filmmakers) to the consumer (viewers) and back again, in a dialectics that is at once objective, grounded in the realities of production and exchange, and subjective (attentive to inner vision). What I am advocating is a hermeneutics of cinema comparable in some ways to the deconstructive hermeneutics of literature called for by Walter Kendrick (Village Voice June 7/83):
...When we encounter a work of art, our "primary experience" is one of understanding, not cognition. Before reflection sets in, before any kind of interpretation is made, we understand art aesthetically, "in an understanding that is pleasure".
Understanding in the hermeneutical sense, dependent upon the context of either the present audience or any past one. The task of literary hermeneutics (genuinely both literary and historical) would be to trace the history of aesthetic experience in all its contexts, taking into account not only how society has influenced the reception of art, but also how art has altered the society that receives it. Art would then be neither sealed off from the social world nor sucked into it: each would be interpreted in terms of the other, in a truly hermeneutical enterprise... Interacting with deconstruction, the historical and contextual methods of hermeneutics might generate a large-scale, truly interdisciplinary critique of society that would be neither acedemic nor narrowly political, but an active fusion of both.
In Opsis we plan to examine the many contexts in which a progressive cinema must exist - the contexts of production/distribution/exhibitions the context of government policy, of technology, of the other arts, of cinema's history, of history itself, etc. And we will look at these contexts from various points of view: the filmmaker's, the audience's, and those of different critical, theoretical and political perspectives. We hope to make a difference in the way film and video in Canada is made, used and thought about and for that we need your criticism and encouragement.
Opsis Spring 1984