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Chapter 3— "The Untutored Eye"
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Chapter 3—
"The Untutored Eye"

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 graduations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."
—Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision

The "untutored eye" is a persistent and sustaining metaphor in Stan Brakhage's visual aesthetics. It first appeared in the opening paragraph of Metaphors on Vision , a work that has become a declaration of visual independence for filmmakers rebelling against conventional filmmaking techniques.[1] Brakhage's statement was original and liberating for avant-garde filmmakers, but the ideas lying behind it did not originate with him, nor can they be limited to filmmaking. They have been shared by some of Brakhage's immediate (or near) contemporaries, and more important, they have played a significant role in the history of theories of visual perception. By placing the "untutored eye" in those broader contexts, I hope to clarify—and emphasize—the metaphor's importance for the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film in general and Brakhage's work in particular.


Ten years before Metaphors on Vision , J. D. Salinger's juvenile mystic Teddy (in the story of that name) argued that if children are taught that grass is green, "it makes them start expecting the grass to look [that]


way," rather than "some other way that may be just as good, and maybe much better." Teddy concedes that children might eventually "learn all that other stuff—names and colors and things," but, he says, "I'd want them to begin with all the real ways of looking at things."[2] Similar notions appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's lecture "On Fairy-Stories": "We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red." Then, like William Blake urging us to cleanse "the doors of perception," Tolkien continues, "We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness."[3]

Among those who have pursued fresh perceptions of the world are Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley, both of whom used psychotropic drugs to free their vision from the "drab blur of triteness and familiarity." In The Joyous Cosmology , which appeared one year before Metaphors on Vision , Watts tells of looking at a leaf and discovering that it was "not green at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as green—purple, gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence of the emerald." He was not experiencing hallucinations, Watts insists, but simply "changed ways of seeing." What had changed was his ability to notice colors that are always present but usually go unnoticed because "normally we do not so much look at things as over look them." When this happens, "The eye sees types and classes—flower, leaf, rock, bird, fire—mental pictures of things rather than things, rough outlines filled with flat color, always a little dusty and dim."[4]

Huxley argues in The Art of Seeing , "It is possible by inhibiting the activity of the interpreting mind, to catch a hint of the raw sensum , as it presents itself to the eyes of the newborn child."[5] In his better-known work, The Doors of Perception , he describes at length what he saw when mescaline "inhibit[ed] the activity of the interpreting mind." Summarizing his experience, Huxley writes, "Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept."[6]

The same argument in somewhat different terms appears in Rudolf Arnheim's introduction to Art and Visual Perception:

We have neglected the gift of comprehending things through our senses. Concept is divorced from percept, and thought moves among abstractions. Our eyes have been reduced to instruments with which to identify and to measure; hence we suffer a paucity of ideas that can be expressed in images and an incapacity to discover meaning in what we see. Naturally we feel lost in the presence of


objects that make sense only to undiluted vision, and we seek refuge in the more familiar medium of words.[7]

By invoking "undiluted vision," Arnheim joins Brakhage, Salinger, Tolkien, Watts, and Huxley in the campaign to promote the "untutored eye" and the "adventure of perception" available to minds unencumbered by "concepts," "abstractions," "types and classes," and "all that other stuff—names and colors and things."

Of course, "cleansing the doors of perception" became a catchphrase of the "Psychedelic Sixties," and affirmations of the "perceptual innocence of childhood" perfectly suited a period obsessed with new perceptual experiences. Characteristic of the period is one of Jonas Mekas's columns in the Village Voice (6 February 1964), which begins:

Is our eye dying? Or we just do not know how to look and see any longer? The experience of LSD shows that the eye can expand itself, see more than we usually do. But then, as Bill Burroughs says (I quote from memory), "Whatever can be done chemically can be done other ways." There are many ways of freeing the eye.[8]

Mekas goes on to quote from two reports of experiments in which flickering light on closed eyelids induced "colors and visions you were not able to see before," and in the midst of these reports he inserts the paragraph from Metaphors on Vision quoted as this chapter's epigraph. The "untutored eye," LSD, and "flicker machines" might have seemed equally capable of "freeing the eye" and therefore equally true to the spirit of the times, but in reality the idea of the "untutored eye" is of different and earlier origins.


The conception of the "untutored eye" derives from theories of visual perception that start with Johannes Kepler's discovery of the retinal image in the early seventeenth century. When it became apparent that any investigation of vision had to take into account the image "painted on the retina," two questions seemed inevitably to follow: (1) How can the stable, continuous, three-dimensional world we think we see be derived from an intermittent succession of two-dimensional pictures flitting over the concave surface of the retina? (2) Why doesn't the visible world seem to be in our eyes, or for that matter, in our minds, instead of "out there" at varying distances from our eyes? As John Stuart Mill puts it, "What is it we mean, or what is it which leads us to say, that the objects we perceive are external to us, and not a part of our own thoughts?"[9]


There were two fundamental answers to such questions. One (represented by Descartes and Malebranche in France and Bailey in England) simply assumed that we see a stable, three-dimensional world because the workings of the visual system automatically make the necessary adjustments in the retinal image. The Divine Intelligence that designed everything would not have had it otherwise. In Malebranche's succinct phrase, "We see all things in God."[10] In less theological terms, this is the nativist answer, which holds that innate neurological structures and processes of the brain determine what we see. In this view, we are born with the capacity to see the world as it is; therefore, there can be no pristine time before we have "learned to see" when the "untutored eye" could hold sway.

The ancestry of the "untutored eye" must be found, then, in the other answer to questions about the retinal image. This was the answer of empiricist and associationist scientists and philosophers like Locke, Molyneux, Berkeley, and Condillac in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and carried on by the main line of orthodox psychology in the nineteenth century (as found in the work of William James, for example), and by twentieth-century psychologists like Pavlov, Watson, Hull, and Hebb.

Their answers began with the assumption that we do, indeed, see only what the retinal image provides: in Berkeley's words, "no more than colors with their variations, and different proportions of light and shade."[11] Moreover, "the perpetual mutability and fleetingness" of those colors and shadings preclude their being seen as permanent and identifiable images. Condillac imagined that at this stage the sense of sight would "wander over a chaos of shapes, [producing] a fleeting picture, the parts of which would escape it continually."[12]

It was generally assumed that even after the discrimination of simple shapes became possible, vision still did not include depth or extension or the solidity and relative positions of objects in three-dimensional space. As the nineteenth-century physiologist Johannes Müller wrote:

The images of objects are formed in the retina in one surface, just as the retina is extended in that form. They will appear to the mind as depicted on a surface, and will excite no idea of proximity or distance, or of the actual occupation of space. However soon the child may recognize the images as things exterior to itself, they still appear to it to occupy one plane, to be all at the same distance from it: it catches at the most distant, as at the nearest object,—it grasps at the moon.[13]

Only with time and practice, Müller believed, does the child learn to see things as—and where—they really are.


In The Art of Seeing , Huxley recapitulates the process of "learning to see" by describing his recovery from the effects of a dentist's anesthetic:

Returning awareness began with pure visual sensations completely devoid of significance. These, as I can remember them, were not of objects existing "out there" in the familiar, three-dimensional world of everyday experience. They were just colored patches, existing in and for themselves.

Gradually the "colored patches" became associated with objects in the three-dimensional world: "That which was now being apprehended was no longer a set of mere colored patches, but a set of aspects of the known, because remembered, world." Finally: "What had been at first raw sensa and had then become, by interpretation, the appearances of known varieties of objects, underwent a further transformation and became objects consciously related to a self, an organized pattern of memories, habits and desires."[14]

Huxley's "raw sensa " are what Berkeley had called "no more than colors with their variations, and different proportions of light and shade." The classic hypothetical example of that primary level of seeing appeared in a famous letter from the English scientist William Molyneux to his friend John Locke in 1693. Molyneux argued that if someone born blind were suddenly given sight, he or she would not be able to tell the difference between a cube and a sphere simply by looking at the two objects. The person would have to touch them in order to distinguish between them.

Molyneux's argument seemed to gain clinical support when surgeons began removing cataracts from the eyes of blind people and reporting what their patients said they saw in the first hours and days after the operations. The earliest report came in 1728 from the English surgeon William Cheselden, who removed cataracts from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy who had been blind from birth. "When he first saw," Cheselden wrote, "he was so far from making any judgment about distances, that he thought all objects whatever touched his eyes (as he expressed it) as what he felt did his skin." Cheselden also reported that the boy at first "knew not the shape of anything, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape or magnitude."[15]

Subsequent reports of the first visual experiences of newly sighted people seemed to support Cheselden's findings. After surveying a number of these reports, Marius von Senden concluded:

The elements initially presented to [the patient's] mind constitute, at best, what Grafé describes as an arrangement en surface , namely a fortuitously


given ordering of various colored patches, more or less indistinctly separated off one from another.[16]

Experiences such as these encouraged the assumption that similarly fortuitous arrangements of "colored patches" are seen by everyone in infancy, and that only in the course of time do these sensations take on shape, solidity, and identity.

They do so (it was assumed) because of a learning process in which touch is the primary teacher. It seemed obvious that the visual world shared by all normally sighted people could not be derived from "colored patches" on the retina. The associationist hypothesis (as Molyneux's proposition indicates) called upon the sense of touch to supply the necessary information about objects and the space they occupy. "Touch teaches the other senses to judge external objects," Condillac asserts.[17] From touch would come data on the spatial relationships and the shape, size, solidity, and texture of the things we see. Thus we must "learn to see" by associating visual and tactile data—a process that begins at such an early age and becomes so habitual that we do not notice it. We come to experience the collaboration of the two senses as if it were the report of a single sense—sight. As Berkeley puts it, "So swift, and sudden, and unperceived is the transit from visible to tangible ideas [that is, from purely visual data to combinations of visual and tactile impressions], that we can scarce forbear thinking them equally the immediate object of vision."[18]

The learning process does not stop there. What is seen must be understood. It must become part of what Huxley called "an organized pattern of memories, habits and desires." This is what a contemporary psychologist, Robert Ornstein, has described as "a suitable category system in which to sort experience consistently." Ornstein offers a neat summary of that process (with a Darwinian explanation for its success):

As we learn to construct a socially acceptable personal consciousness, we learn to consistently associate, say, the experience of light with external objects. As we mature, this correlation is reinforced. Whenever a particular pattern of excitation is produced in the nervous system, we become more and more likely to be conscious of light energy from outside events. Our world becomes relatively stable; we become able to avoid danger successfully and to manipulate objects. We survive.[19]

To "survive" requires the ability not only to "manipulate objects" but also "to construct a socially acceptable personal consciousness." A major influence on that consciousness is verbal language, which at the simplest level


provides labels for what we see and at more complex levels helps to shape the generalizations we derive from and apply to everything we perceive (hence Brakhage's invocation of a world "before the 'beginning was the word,'" and Arnheim's assertion that to avoid "undiluted vision" we "seek refuge" in words).

For the associationists, learning to see was not only necessary but good and proper. They had no notion that we might be sacrificing something valuable in order to see the world as others see it. Quite the contrary. There were constant references to the infant's being "lost" in a "chaos" of visual impressions until rescued by the sense of touch. Condillac is most eloquent on the subject:

I open my eyes to the light, and see at first only a maze of light and color. I touch, I move forward, I touch again, and as I look the chaos insensibly clears. Touch in some way decomposes the light, separates the colors, distributes them on the objects, and detaches a clear space. In this space are shapes and sizes. Touch opens before my eyes a certain distance, and shows them the way by which they may look over the far earth, and rise even to the heavens above. Touch unfurls for them the universe.[20]

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century adherents to the associationist tradition are likely to be less literal—and less eloquent—in their descriptions of the infant's visual "chaos," but they have continued to maintain (in William James's often quoted assertion), "The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion."[21]


The associationists' premises about vision can support a very different line of argument, however—one in which "learning to see" becomes a loss rather than a gain, and the presumed "chaos" of infant vision may seem an Eden of innocent perception. John Ruskin seems to have been the first person to apply the orthodox associationists' premises in this unorthodox way.

In Elements of Drawing Ruskin writes, "Everything that you can see in the world around you, presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colors variously shaded." Therefore, he argues, artists should seek to recover "the innocence of the eye, " which he defines as "a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of color, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,—as a blind man would


see them if suddenly gifted with sight." To illustrate his argument, Ruskin chose a familiar example—the color of grass:

[W]hen grass is lighted strongly by the sun in certain directions, it is turned from green into a peculiar and somewhat dusty-looking yellow. If we had been born blind, and were suddenly endowed with sight on a piece of grass thus lighted in some parts by the sun, it would appear to us that part of the grass was green, and part a dusty yellow (very nearly of the colour of primroses); and, if there were primroses near, we should think that the sunlighted grass was another mass of plants of the same sulphur-yellow color.

Rushkin then points out that since we have learned that grass is green, we tend to see it only as green (just as Salinger's Teddy feared). "Very few people," Ruskin concludes, "have any idea that sunlighted grass is yellow."[22]

From his aesthetic application of associationist theories of perception, Ruskin was able to conclude that in order to see sunlighted grass in its true yellowness, artists must surrender what they "know" to perceive what they really "see." They must allow the retina's colored patches to displace years of accumulated experience, so that they may look at things with no preconceptions about their identity, function, or meaning. Then they can rediscover the "undiluted vision" Arnheim proposes as the remedy for eyes "reduced to instruments with which to identify and to measure."

The artists who best illustrate Ruskin's theory are the French impressionists, whose goal was to reproduce, in Bernard Berenson's words, "exactly what appears to the uninformed, untutored, to the so-vaunted 'innocent eye.'"[23] Claude Monet's advice to painters perfectly complements Ruskin's:

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naive impression of the scene before you.[24]

Monet was reported to have said that "he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him."[25] No doubt he would have found only praise in Cézanne's judgment: "Only an eye, but, good God, what an eye!"[26]

Cézanne believed, however, that the eye alone was not enough, that one must reflect upon what one sees. ("L'oeil ne suffit pas, il faut la réflexion.")[27] For Cézanne that was an aesthetic imperative. For others, like E. H. Gombrich, it is not only aesthetically desirable but psychologi-


cally necessary if one is to see at all, let alone paint representations of what one sees, and in Art and Illusion , Gombrich attempted a thorough refutation of Ruskin's arguments on behalf of the "innocent eye."

As Ruskin drew upon eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of perception to support his notion of the "innocent eye," so Gombrich turns to twentieth-century theories and experiments in the psychology of perception. There he finds evidence that makes him doubt "whether such an achievement of innocent passivity is at all possible to the human mind."[28] Gombrich argues that modern research proves our vision to be naturally and automatically attuned to a three-dimensional world that we can never see "innocently" or without expectations of what it will look like. In seeing, Gombrich insists, we always "sort and model the incoming messages, testing and transforming and testing again."[29] In support of his position, Gombrich quotes J. R. Beloff: "Perception may be regarded as primarily the modification of an anticipation."[30] He might have also quoted W. H. Ittelson and F. P. Kilpatrick, whose research on optical illusions led them to conclude, "Perception is never a sure thing, never an absolute revelation of 'what is.' Rather, what we see is a prediction—our own personal construction designed to give us the best possible bet for carrying out our purposes in action."[31]

That is one way of formulating the "best bet" theory of perception proposed by Adelbert Ames (to whom Gombrich refers several times in Art and Illusion ). The theory rests on the assumption that all perceptual data is ambiguous. This is why there can be no "absolute revelation of 'what is.'" The visual system must resolve the ambiguity before anything at all is seen, and normally it will do so by assuming that "what has been most probable in the past is most probable in the immediate occasion."[32]

For example, if my retina receives the image of a ball growing rapidly larger, my visual system must choose between the possibility that the ball is actually increasing in size, or that it is getting closer. It will probably choose the latter alternative because that is "most probable." What it chooses is, automatically, what I see. Under highly controlled, experimental conditions, I may not know anything about the actual sources of the patterns stimulating my retina; then I may make a wrong choice and see an object getting closer when it is really getting larger, or vice versa. But in the everyday world, that is not likely to happen because, as R. L. Gregory says:

Objects are far more than patterns of stimulation; objects have pasts and futures; when we know its past or can guess its future, an object transcends


[immediate] experience and becomes an embodiment of knowledge and expectation without which life of even the simplest kind is impossible.[33]

Clearly, Monet's advice "to forget what objects you have before you" cannot be followed if, as the "best bet" theory holds, "knowledge and expectation" guide all perception. In a succinct restatement of that theory, Gregory writes, "We can think of perception as being essentially the selection of the most appropriate stored hypothesis according to current sensory data."[34] This formulation makes the distinction between "percept" and "concept" untenable. It completely undercuts the associationists' assumption that the senses passively receive sensory data that higher levels of the mind translate into conscious visual perception. If, to quote Gregory once more, "all perception is theory-laden,"[35] then the visual system can provide no privileged place for Monet's "naive impressions."

For this reason, Gombrich feels sure, "Nobody has ever seen a visual sensation, not even the impressionists, however ingenuously they stalked their prey."[36] For the same reason, Gombrich finds that current theories of perception support his own theory of pictorial representation. In a crucial passage in Art and Illusion he relates the two theories:

It might be said, therefore, that the very process of perception is based on the same rhythm that we found governing the process of representation: the rhythm of schema and correction. It is a rhythm which presupposes constant activity on our part in making guesses and modifying them in the light of our experience. Whenever this test meets with an obstacle, we abandon the guess and try again.[37]

Given this innate and inevitable trial-and-error process of perception and representation, the "innocent eye" would seem to be, in Gombrich's words, "not only psychologically difficult, but logically impossible." Indeed, Gombrich concludes, "The innocent eye is a myth."[38]

Gombrich's conclusion finds support not only in the "best bet" theory of perception but also in certain facts about perception that were unknown or unappreciated by Ruskin and his predecessors. It is now known, for example, that the visual system degenerates if it is not stimulated by light on the retina soon after birth.[39] Therefore, the visual impressions of a blind person "suddenly endowed with sight" are a questionable basis for hypotheses about the early stages of normal human vision. "Adults with restored vision," R. L. Gregory observes, "are not living fossils of infants."[40]

Furthermore, ingenious experiments by perceptual psychologists have drastically revised the conventional assumptions about infant vision. They


have shown that even very young infants can identify shapes, objects, and even stylized drawings of the human face. Long before babies have explored their world through the sense of touch, they can see solidity, depth, motion, and relative positions of objects in space—though not necessarily "all at the same time." That is to say, they may not realize they are seeing the same object when it appears in two different places; or they may not recognize a moving object as being the same object when it is standing still; or they may follow the movement of an object and not notice when a different object has replaced the first one—that is, their attention is on the movement not the moving object. But even these visual anomalies normally disappear by the time the infant is six months old. Although infants may not see the same world adults see, their capacity to perceive the basic elements of the visual world is active—if not totally integrated—within the first few weeks of life. The Jamesian view of the infant's world as a "blooming, buzzing confusion" must surely be rejected. As T.G.R. Bower says, "The visual world of the infant may well be overwhelming at times, but it is probably not the meaningless buzz it has long been thought to be."[41]

Finally, the actual function of the retinal image must be taken into account. Rather than a "picture painted on the retina," the retinal image is more properly thought of as energy arriving at the retina in the form of light and producing electrochemical reactions that set off millions of further electrochemical reactions along the intricate pathways of the total visual system. The end result of these reactions, combined with other sorts of impulses (from memory, emotions, and the other senses), produces that perception of the visible world we call sight.

Given this complex system of interactions, it makes little sense to talk of some kind of preliminary retinal perception that is truer because closer to the actual world that casts its images on the back of the eyeball. Those images start a process that reveals the visible world, but they, themselves, are invisible. "The eye," M. H. Pirenne writes, "is the only optical instrument which forms an image which has never been intended to be seen."[42]

Must we conclude then that the "untutored eye" is a relic of an outmoded theory of visual perception? Yes—and no. Yes, to the extent that it has become overburdened with a history of misunderstandings about the actual processes of perception and with a too literal application to the vision of infants and those few blind people whose sight has been restored. But no, in the sense that the "untutored eye" is still valid as a metaphor for actual ways of seeing and, therefore, as a source for filmmaking.



To appreciate the metaphorical validity of the "untutored eye," let us return to the color of grass. In Eye and Brain , R. L. Gregory writes:

We call grass green, though we have no idea whether the sensation is the same for different people. Grass is a certain kind of plant found on lawns, and the sensation of colour which it gives we all call "green," but we identify grass by other characteristics than its colour—the form of the leaves, their density and so on—and if we do tend to confuse the colour there is generally sufficient additional evidence to identify it as grass. We know it is supposed to be green, and we call it green even when this may be doubtful.[43]

The "untutored eye" might be thought of as a personal, existential acceptance of the "doubtful" in perception, a refusal to let "additional evidence" make grass look green when it doesn't.

The "untutored eye" will not correct its vision when something does not look the way it is supposed to—as, for example, when "grass lighted strongly by the sun in certain directions" is yellow instead of green. Brakhage, in fact, has caught that precise perception of sunlit grass in Film No. 6 of his Short Films: 1975 . In a brief close-up two small plants tremor and seem to "blink"—green-yellow-green-yellow —like tiny signal lights. The effect is created by a time-lapse sequence of young plants shifting their positions very slightly as bright sunlight moves across them. In direct sunlight they are yellow, in shadow they are green. Because the changes in color are so rapid, the passage so brief, and the point of view so unfamiliar, the viewer has little choice but to surrender to the "doubtful" and see yellow where one would ordinarily see green. The camera-eye has caught what the human eye might miss—or misperceive as ordinary green grass.

This example of cinema's manipulation of perception suggests further that seeing with an "untutored eye" need not be a mindless registering of empirical data, despite the implication of Ruskin's phrase "childish perception of flat stains of color, merely as such." Neither is it a willful surrender to James's "blooming, buzzing confusion." It is a way of making the "doubtful" in perception yield new sight—and insight. By permitting us to see the yellow of sunlit plants, Brakhage not only offers a fresh and accurate perception of nature's colors, he also demonstrates the metaphorical (some might even say metaphysical) powers of the "untutored eye." To see young plants as flickering beacons of light is to see them as metaphors of solar energy transformed into vegetal growth. This is a visual metaphor that both Blake and modern scientists would appreciate.


Watts and Huxley used drugs to cleanse their "doors of perception," but almost any drastic change in the way one looks at the world produces hints of what an "untutored eye" might see. Simply by looking through a small hole in a large piece of cardboard, one can see the world as colored patches on a flat plane. Because the cardboard masks the usual cues to depth and spatial relationships, objects seem flatter and bunched up in the shallow space just beyond the hole, especially if the hole is aimed this way and that, so that one does not know in advance what objects are coming into view. With practice, a window can be used in the same way—as a frame within which the three-dimensional world outside can be seen as an arrangement of flat, colored shapes on the window pane. With still more practice, one can see that each eye has its own window, framed by eyebrows, cheekbones, temples, and bridge of nose. When both eyes are open these windows overlap, producing an oval "picture window" about twice as wide as it is high. This is what the artist Jim Jackson calls the "framework of seeing," and he shows how it can be used to "frame" flat patches of color derived from the world in front of the eyes.[44]

As Jackson also demonstrates in Seeing Yourself See , this framework includes a great deal more than we normally allow ourselves to notice, and within its total area, only a very small part is occupied by the most focused central point of interest. As forms approach the nebulous "frame" of the eyes' "window," they become increasingly indistinct and drained of color until finally nothing is visible but light and movement. Beyond those limits, the eyes continue to detect movement, even though the thing moving (even a point of light) remains invisible. The ability to detect movement beyond the peripheries of the visual system's image-forming capacities is a kind of Distant Early Warning System that undoubtedly assists in the survival of the species. It is also evidence that at the invisible borders of vision, there is something like pure, disembodied movement to which the eye continues to respond and to which the imagination might give shape and substance—as mapmakers once gave fanciful forms to the inhabitants of terra incognita.

Although this magical terrain may be continually present to the "untutored eye," it is virtually ignored by the "tutored" eye, for which the focused center acquires a subjective importance that makes it seem much larger than it really is. For this reason, as Jackson notes, "you have a hard time seeing the focal point as the very tiny area it really is. Psychologically you resist overthrowing the accumulated power of experience of the visual center of your brain and refuse to let your eyes go back to a primal state of simple perception."[45]


It is possible to achieve that "primal state of simple perception," which is Jackson's equivalent of "untutored vision," by becoming aware of everything within the "framework of seeing," not just the consciously chosen center. Shifting attention from the "focal point" of vision permits the "doubtful" in perception to have the upper hand. Even familiar objects will reveal unexpected colors, textures, shapes, and relationships to each other. As objects lose their distinct "objecthood," space (as an "emptiness" around objects) tends to disappear. The world no longer stays "out there," at safe and known distances but seems to press in upon the perceiver. Under such conditions, one might indeed "grasp at the moon," or, at the very least, see the world as Monet proposed to see it: "here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow."

To see in this way is to experience what James J. Gibson has called "the pictorial mode of visual perception." It is a subjective way of seeing that Gibson associates with (in his terminology) the "visual field," as distinct from the "objective seeing" of what he calls the "visual world." In The Perception of the Visual World , Gibson explains his distinction between "visual field" and "visual world" in terms that could be applied equally well to "untutored" and "tutored" vision. Furthermore, he shows that both ways of seeing are readily observable:

First look around the room and note that you see a perfectly stable scene of floor and walls, with an array of familiar objects at definite locations and distances. Every part of it is fixed relative to every other part. If you look out the window, there beyond is an extended environment of ground and buildings, or, if you are lucky, "scenery." This is what we shall call the visual world . It is the familiar, ordinary scene of daily life, in which solid objects look solid, square objects look square, horizontal surfaces look horizontal, and the book across the room looks as big as the book lying in front of you. . . . Next look at the room not as a room but, insofar as you can, as if it consisted of areas or patches of colored surface, divided up by contours. To do so, you must fixate your eyes on some prominent point and then pay attention not to that point, as is natural, but to the whole range of what you can see, keeping your eyes still fixed. The attitude you take is that of the perspective draftsman [that is, seeing that, as on a flat picture plane, "square objects" are really trapezoidal, "horizontal surfaces" are inclined planes, "the book across the room" is much, much smaller than the one "lying in front of you," and so on]. It may help if you close one eye. If you persist, the scene comes to approximate the appearance of a picture. You may observe that it has characteristics somewhat different from the former scene. This is what will be called here the visual field . It is less familiar than the visual world and it cannot be observed except with some kind of special effort.[46]

The "special effort" is what Jim Jackson calls "over-throwing the accumulated power of experience of the visual center of your brain." It yields a


perception so different from the familiar "visual world" that, Gibson insists, we must think of the "visual world" and the "visual field" as the results of "two different kinds of seeing."

One kind of seeing—that which produces the "visual field"—corresponds closely to "innocent" vision; the other kind—producing the "visual world"—is akin to the "theory-laden" vision that Gombrich presumes to be the only kind available to human eyes. Gibson's "visual world"–"visual field" distinction is thus doubly useful for our present purposes. Not only does it add more details to a description of what an "untutored eye" might see, but it also offers an implicit refutation of Gombrich's assertion that "the innocent eye is a myth."

For these reasons, Gibson's differentiation between the two ways of seeing is worth summarizing in detail. Gibson finds that the "visual field" has a frame: an oval boundary marking the limits of the eye's visual angle. Within that frame there is "a central-to-peripheral gradient of clarity." In contrast, the "visual world" has no frame and no noticeable center; it is "panoramic" and seems clearly focused throughout (because of the eye's constant scanning and shifting of focus). The "visual field" is instable, changing with every movement of the eyes and turn of the head, the "visual world" is stable: things stay where they are, no matter how much our eyes move about. In the "visual field" three-dimensionality is reduced. There is less distinction between "figure" and "ground," or between objects and their "interspaces." Forms "eclipse" each other, rather than seeming to be in front of each other, as they appear to be in the "visual world." Perhaps most important of all, the "visual field" evokes a self-consciousness about the act of perception itself. It is, says Gibson, "an introspective or analytic phenomenon." What we see seems less completely outside of us because we are aware of our special effort to see it. The "visual world," on the other hand, seems totally independent of our act of perceiving it. It is simply there . In Gibson's terms, the "visual field" derives from "our experience-when-we-introspect," and the "visual world" from "our experience-when-we-do-not."[47]

In other words, the "visual field" results from our noticing the ambiguous or "doubtful" perceptual data that our visual system normally suppresses or converts into the more "useful" and socially shared perceptions of the "visual world." Gibson even suggests that the "visual field" provides "a reasonably close correlate of the retinal image," but at the same time he insists that the "visual field" is not a "preliminary" stage of seeing or in any sense a "basis" for the "visual world."


In his view, the "visual field" is simply "an alternative to ordinary perception."


"Untutored" vision can be thought of then as "an alternative to ordinary perception," as an ability to notice deviations from visual norms, many of which have in fact been studied by perceptual psychologists. Various studies have shown that color, size, and other visual qualities are perceived differently according to different moods, expectations, and physical conditions: food looks better to someone who is hungry; desired objects may look larger to someone who lacks them. Objects of great interest cause the pupils to dilate; repugnant sights constrict them. The size of the pupil influences focusing and the perception of brightness and color saturation. The "untutored eye" may notice these changes, just as it may notice when a sudden surge of anger from deep within the brain's subcortical regions topples the carefully balanced chemistry of the cells in the visual cortex and makes us "see red." We blink more often when we are under stress, and the "untutored eye" might see the frequency with which our eyelids plunge our vision in and out of darkness.

Darkness itself can be a rich realm of vision for the "untutored eye." It reveals ephemeral shapes and patterns of light seen when the eyes are closed. Known as phosphenes, these "wispy clouds and moving specks of light," as Gerald Oster describes them, may arise spontaneously, not only when the eyes are closed but whenever "the viewer is subjected to prolonged visual deprivation," as when he or she looks for hours at a blank screen.[48] Phosphenes are also produced by physical pressure on the eyes—from the light touch of a fingertip on the eyelid, to the violent jolt produced by a fall or a blow to the head (when we "see stars"). They can result from sudden movements of the eyes after long periods in darkness, and they can be stimulated by chemical agents (from alcohol to hallucinogenic drugs), electrical shocks, migraine headaches, and various forms of damage to the eyes or other parts of the brain's visual system.

Under one condition or another, phosphenes are visible to virtually everyone, and although individuals vary in their sensitivity to them, Oster has shown that it is possible to chart and classify certain general patterns of phosphenes according to the type of stimulus producing them. For example, gentle pressure on the eyelids produces "disks or concentric circles or arcs" at one edge of the dark visual field; hard pressure on both eyelids produces "a checkerboard or a field of light in


motion"; sudden eye movements upon waking produce "a fan-shaped burst of yellow arcs."[49]

Oster finds these and other characteristic phosphene patterns in "prehistoric cave drawings and in folk art and more sophisticated works from many cultures and periods." He also finds, "Children between the ages of two and four, capable of manipulating a pencil but not of making naturalistic pictures, draw figures that have a distinct phosphene character." That these "scribblings" represent phosphenes seems all the more likely since, as Oster notes, "Children have an ability, which diminishes with adolescence, to evoke phosphenes quite easily. Phosphenes may indeed be an important part of the child's real environment, since he may not readily distinguish this internal phenomenon from those of the external world."[50] The merging of "internal" and "external" worlds may continue to be visible to the "untutored eye."

In addition to phosphenes, the visual system produces a persistent low level of grainy light often referred to as visual "noise." R. L. Gregory explains, "There is always some residual neural activity reaching the brain, even when there is no stimulation of the eye by light," and this "background activity" presents the brain with the problem of distinguishing between inner and outer sources of visual information. In Gregory's words, "The brain's problem is to 'decide' whether neural activity is representing outside events, or whether it is mere 'noise' which should be ignored."[51] Though ignored by the "tutored" eye, this "residual neural activity" can be another rich source of seeing for the "untutored eye," precisely because it comes from within the visual system and can help to make that inner world visible.

In fact, visual "noise" may be directly responsive to emotions. This possibility is raised by Albert Rose in Vision: Human and Electronic. Rose found that a sudden, unexpected noise or "a tense or apprehensive emotional state" can produce a noticeable increase in the visibility of visual "noise."[52] Although such responses within the visual system are easier to see in dim light or with the eyes closed, presumably visual "noise" is always present and potentially visible to the "untutored eye," which may see the whole texture of vision change with changing emotional states.

Certainly it is possible to argue that phosphenes and various kinds of visual "noise" are not only verifiably present but produce some of the subtlest patterns in our fabric of vision. If these patterns are reproduced in children's drawings and in folk art, they may also be a source for the highly sophisticated geometry of mandalas. Lenny Lipton has proposed,


"In Tibetan mandala art, we have some of the best examples of the appreciation of the grainy perception of the eye-brain." This notion will be pursued further in chapter 6; here the point to be stressed is that visual "noise" has a close correspondence to the graininess of the projected film image. As Lipton notes, "The background [visual] noise of motion picture systems is very much like that of the eye-brain."[53]

Brakhage, too, has proposed an equivalence between the graininess of film emulsion and the "grainy field" of vision itself, but his own observations have revealed patterns of "grains" and "dots" that are subtler and more complex than those in the random dance of emulsion grains projected on the movie screen. "At first," Brakhage wrote in a letter to the Canadian filmmaker Sam Perry, "I thought that the individual grains [in vision's "grainy field"] were fairly fixed, and of a like nature, and moved only slowly, in a 'crawling' fashion. . . ." These, he suggested, are approximated "most exactly in film by the use of 'grainy' film, by emulsion grain." With longer and closer observation, he became "aware of several differing flicker dots," and of "differing SHAPES of these differently MOVING dots or grains." He even found that one variety appeared to be magnified when he held a glass before his closed eyes. He labeled these "Reich's grains," because they seemed to accord with Wilhelm Reich's descriptions of the patterns of movement of "Orgone" energy. "I find these moving shapes," Brakhage added, "coming into my closed eye vision in blue, gold, and even red, and very occasionally green, rather than only in the 'blue' Reich designated to them." Then, alluding to Perry's references to a "dot plane" in vision, Brakhage concludes:

My continued study of the WHOLE field inclines me to believe that there are NO exactly round grains thereIN it, that we tend to call "round" that which has not been seen inTO distinctly enough, that, thus "The Dot Plane" is ONLY an introductory term, so to speak, and COULD thus constitute a verbal (to the expense of the visual) hang-up if hung onto.[54]

Brakhage's aesthetic development of "The Dot Plane" will be one of the matters discussed in the next chapter.

His letter to Perry illustrates Brakhage's characteristic effort to discover everything he can about every aspect of seeing and then describe his discoveries in precise and evocative language—only to conclude by emphasizing the inadequacy of any verbal description of visual phenomena. As an advocate for the "untutored eye," Brakhage finds himself forced into using labels and concepts that as an artist of the "untutored eye," he does everything he can to avoid, or at best transform, through metaphor. Yet, rhetori-


cal differences aside, Brakhage's descriptions of various visual phenomena often accord quite closely with those of others—scientists as well as artists—who are engaged in exploring and explaining the less familiar and often overlooked aspects of visual perception.

For example, both Brakhage and Jim Jackson have written about what Jackson calls "light saturation." The effect can be produced, Jackson explains, by sitting in a brightly lighted room, focusing on a point directly ahead, and trying not to blink, even after the eyes "begin to sting." Jackson's description continues:

After a minute or two, your retina will begin to become saturated with light. The effect is similar to that of the afterimage, but on a larger scale. More of the retina is involved. Light areas may become mysteriously brighter, change color, spill over into dark areas, or pulsate. Objects may appear to have halos around them.[55]

This can be compared to Brakhage's account of concentrating on his wife's features as she sat before him, reading aloud. With his "eyes being freed and abstractly receiving the reader . . . all sight without thought," as he writes in Metaphors on Vision , he began to see "what had been backlighting" take the form of a "halo" behind her head:

And the ring of it eventually spread to contour what had been the outline of her hair, then suffused the natural brownish color until white, her facial changes keeping pace with this aging process until every shadowed area had cracked across her features into wavering wrinkles eventually isolating the paler manifestations to the impermanent shape of a skull. Fear constricted me to glances then, and each sharpening of vision forced the imagery back to what I'd recognize as "normal."

But curiosity, Brakhage says, prompted him to continue the experiment, to stop "short of normalcy, with my wife's still white hair now streaming down beyond any brown length of it, pooling at her feet, and enclosing what was once her form entirely." Then,

As features became unbelievably aged, they constricted into a more believable infant aspect, hair aura suffusing throughout the room. My mental insistence on the drama gave me the sense that dead and unborn relatives were presenting themselves thru the living organism, my wife suddenly a spaceless entity containing a timeless evolution. This thought, a devastating limitation upon happenstance, constricted all reception and stopped the process dead.[56]

Although Brakhage finds metaphorical significance in phenomena that Jackson is content to describe in purely visual terms, his account matches Jackson's in its principal visual details: the halo effect, the color changes,


the positive-negative reversal of afterimages, the pulsating and spilling over of light into areas of darkness.

Although sights such as these may occur spontaneously to anyone and, like phosphenes, be familiar to all young children, they seem totally foreign to normal or "tutored" vision. When Gombrich declares the "innocent eye" to be a "myth," he is in effect speaking for that part of the mind that refuses to accept all the evidence of the eyes; which treats visual "noise" and phosphenes as "problems" and interruptions of "correct" seeing; which ignores the impact of emotions on vision; which will not risk venturing from the safe, known "visual world" into the less familiar "visual field." Is there any way, then, to break down the "tutored" eye's resistance to "untutored" vision and open it to a broader and richer terrain of visual perception?


Peripheral vision is, as Brakhage has remarked, "easily accessible to every person and obviously (each person can feel for him or herself) ignored."[57] Thus, developing a greater awareness of peripheral vision is a good way of introducing the "tutored eye" to "untutored" vision. But Brakhage insists that this is "ONLY a start (and for some perhaps a misleading one) because untutored vision is NOT peripheral vision. The baby of each person is always alive within anyone's being; and that 'baby' remains forEVER 'untutored.'" It would be a mistake, in other words, to treat peripheral vision and "untutored" vision as the same thing, because the latter includes much more than what happens to fall on the peripheries of the retina. It includes all seeing that is not mediated, organized, and explained by the "tutored" part of the mind.

Since that part of the mind expects to have things explained and demonstrated, there is some usefulness in calling its attention to peripheral vision, or to the "visual field," or to the light displays of phosphenes and grainy visual "noise." This is a way of helping "tutored" vision notice what it has learned to overlook. To teach someone to see with an "untutored eye" may sound like a contradiction in terms, but what is being learned, in this case, is how to recognize that "the baby in each person" is still there and can see if permitted to do so. "I have no easy trick for making people aware of that baby in 'em," Brakhage admits, "and I suspect stark terror keeps most from ever trying to be thus aware. Ironically, stark terror is for some people the only path to that recognition; but


Artaud's methods are not for me. The films'll do it, IF they just don't get hung up on the particularities of me, my path."

It is precisely to avoid getting "hung up on the particularities" of Brakhage's path that this chapter has devoted most of its attention to other paths toward the kind of seeing Brakhage calls "untutored." In that context, Brakhage's defense of the "untutored eye" proves to be less unique than many have thought but also less naive than the Gombrich line of argument would seem to imply. To defend the concept of the "untutored eye" is one thing; to give it artistic expression is another and more demanding task. For Ruskin, the goal of the artist is to transpose "innocent" sight from eye to canvas. For Brakhage, the transposition must be to film, and as we saw in chapter 2, film is a particularly unpromising medium for the expression of "untutored vision" because its mechanical, chemical, and optical parts and processes are designed to produce equivalents of "tutored" vision. They resist the individual "particularities" of an "untutored eye."

Most resistant of all is the lens. That is so because the lens is the cinematic equivalent of what is called the "normal eye" in physical optics. As Vasco Ronchi explains in The Nature of Light , the physiology of actual living eyes produces many "anomalies and uncertainties" in measuring the activity of light in human vision. Consequently, optical physicists "decided to refer to a 'normal eye' or 'standard observer,' namely to a fictitious eye which satisfied certain conventions and which was invariable." Many measurements were made, Ronchi explains, so that this "normal eye" would be "as near as possible to the greatest number of real eyes, hence near to the average of them."[58]

The manufacture and use of camera lenses have followed the same line of reasoning. In fact, all parts of the camera, as well as the film that runs through it, are built-in averaging devices. Because they are made to serve the statistically average "normal eye" of optical physics, they are likely to be congenitally blind to much of what the "untutored eye" sees—unless their averaging effects can be cancelled. And that is precisely the purpose of Brakhage's recommendations to spit on the lens, to over and underexpose the film, to "use the filters of the world, fog, downpours, unbalanced lights, neons with neurotic color temperatures, glass which was never designed for a camera," to use outdoor film indoors and indoor film outdoors, and to shoot during those times "when the film labs will guarantee nothing."[59] These are ways of "untutoring" the camera eye, just as staring without blinking, or concentrating on peripheral vision, or becom-


ing attuned to phosphenes or visual "noise" can help to "untutor" the vision of the human eye.

It remains to be seen if there is artistic merit in such methods. This chapter has not dealt with questions of merit but with possibilities: the possibility that there is such a thing as an "untutored eye" and the possibility of creating cinematic equivalents for what that eye might see. Now we can proceed to the "particularities" of Brakhage's "path"—with less chance of getting "hung up" on them. If, as Brakhage insists, "the films'll do it," what exactly will they do? And how will they do it?


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