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A review essay of recent literature in the field of Warburg studies.


Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, modern German intellectual history, art history, art theory, ornament, metaphor

by Giorgio Agamben
Bollati Boringhieri, 2007, 57p., €8.
Nymph: Motif, Phantom, Affect. A Contribution to the Study of Aby Warburg
by Barbara Baert
Peeters, 2014, 134p., ill., €34.
Warburg, Cassirer, und Einstein im Gespräch: Kepler als Schlüssel der Moderne
by Horst Bredekamp and Claudia Wedepohl
Wagenbach, 2015, 112p., ill., €22.90.
Ninfa moderna: Essai sur le drapé tombé
by Georges Didi-Huberman
Gallimard, 2002, 192p., ill., €24.40.
Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images
by Christopher Johnson
Cornell University Press, 2012, 288p., ill., €35.
Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School
by Emily Levine
University of Chicago Press, 2013, 464p., ill., €48.
Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels
by Erwin Panofsky
De Gruyter, 2014, 283p., ill., €109.95.
On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life
by Spyros Papapetros
University of Chicago Press, 2012, 398p., ill., €58.
Warburgs Denkraum: Formen, Motive, Materialien
edited by Martin Treml, Sabine Flach, and Pablo Schneider
BollatiBoringhieri, 2007, 57p., ill., €8.

If we find that our accounts of an honored, pensioned-off, and then rediscovered intellectual figure are not tending toward consensus, should we consider this a problem? Certainly, some will look for signs of agreement, some intersubjectively emergent bedrock beyond “the vagaries of me and you.” What alternatives are there for those who see coincidence of opinion as only one of several legitimate goals for inquiry? Are there alternatives to the dread option where all we can say is that readers find the text they need? Perhaps one might simply say that “an origin” is a philologically specifiable constellation that brings into focus not one but many potential trajectories. The origin, then, is not some absolute terminus ab quo, before which nothing. Its function as an origin is not to put in motion one determinate and traceable process. The origin, we might alternatively propose, is defined not by its past but by its futures. It is defined by the multiplicity of its various future histories. The true origin is the point to which people keep returning in order to find new variations. Underdetermined, disheveled, recombinable—the origin is a constellation of potentials. Aby Warburg is an origin of this kind. And here is the core claim of this review essay: the more Warburgs we have, the stronger we are.

To an unusual degree, Aby Warburg (1866–1929) remains intellectually alive today. In addition to being deemed theoretically fertile, he has remained an institutional force—in two senses, one disciplinary and one interdisciplinary. Historians of art continue to think of Warburg as one of the founders of the modern field. Taking art historical inquiry beyond connoisseurship, he emphasized the cultural contexts around art objects and articulated commitments that made an anthropology of art appear possible. The eldest son of a Hamburg banking family who decided that his [End Page 646] interests were more essentially scholarly, Warburg also established the famous Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. That library was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933 and became what is now the Warburg Institute, which remains one of the premier centers in the world for Renaissance Studies. More than that, however, the Warburg is also something like a model (or, perhaps, “icon”) for an interdisciplinary entrepo^t combining extreme philological scruple and occasionally quite daring theoretical presuppositions.

The last decade or so has seen a flourishing of Warburg-related or -inspired work, and this review essay grapples with some of the most interesting initiatives. Those initiatives are, in turn, built upon an earlier scholarly literature that began in earnest with the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s intellectual biography in 1970. That work was controversial. Gombrich was himself a significant figure in the field, and he had his own sense of what art history was and how it should be done. His use of unpublished material incensed some, but he displayed enough of the archival record both to impress many readers and simultaneously to dissuade them from attempting to go behind Warburg’s published oeuvre (which was comparatively small) to what seemed like it might be an unpublished treasure trove of axiomatic foundations. Indeed, it is only now that the international scholarly community has direct access to Warburg’s axioms, with the publication in 2015 of the Fragmente zur Ausdruckskunde, edited by Ulrich Pfisterer and Hans Christian Hönes.1 Such issues of methodological substrate were prominent in Carlo Ginzburg’s important 1966 article “Da A. Warburg a E. H. Gombrich: Note su un Problema di Metodo,” and, over time, a wider scholarship emerged. In different scholarly contexts, particularly important contributions came from Martin Warnke in 1980, Philippe-Alain Michaud in 1998, and Matthew Rampley in 2000, among a good number of others.2

Emblematic perhaps of the interdisciplinary and international reach of the Warburg Institute as a small but disproportionately important part of humanistic inquiry around the globe was a volume on the Warburg Library and its readers, edited as an issue of Common Knowledge in 2012 by [End Page 647] Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey F. Hamburger. Conceived as a kind of performed defense of the library (which faced and perhaps still faces dissolution), the volume brought together readers who had obviously thrived in the eclectic and yet networked holdings of the institute. The red thread running through that volume was the sense in which a scholarly space could be organized for discovery. Christopher Wood spoke of the institute’s “library-brain”; Peter Mack intuited an analogy between the library’s systems of classification and “the topics of inventio” (the first part of classical rhetoric); Georges Didi-Huberman argued that the library’s holdings instantiated a process of “sampling” by means of juxtaposition; Ginzburg praised the library as “an engine that helps you think”; and Barbara Stafford characterized the Warburg’s collocations and proximities as an ars combinatoria wiring a “Hippocampal Institute.”3

To be sure, when it comes to Aby Warburg, the contemporary scholarly community has its nostra. We find ourselves captivated by, and we mouth without hearing, a bevy of conceits. One of the first tasks of a literature review is to survey the topography of scholarly commonplaces out of which original research emerges. (In this case, let “we” denote “scholars of Warburg and their sundry readers.) One says the following things. Scion of a wealthy Hamburg banking family, Warburg opted out of the family business, doing a deal with his younger brother: “Buy me all the books I want, and the banking business is yours to lead.” Studying in Bonn, Munich, Strasbourg, and Florence, Warburg was captivated by the “movements-instasis” presented by Botticelli in his Venus and Primavera. An organizing thesis emerged: ancient art did not so much request imitation from the Renaissance artists who gazed upon it; instead it honed their attentiveness to the most difficult problem of fine art—namely, das Festhalten der Bilder des bewegten Lebens, “the stasis effected by images depicting animated life.”4 With an intellectual mission thus defined, Warburg immersed himself in the most arcane historical detail, as a function of the prime intuition that der liebe Gott steckt im Detail, “the devil [well, “God”] is in the details.” Thereafter—the life of an independently wealthy scholar.

The Warburg we know is obsessed with detail, but beneath the seemingly infinite appetite for the minutiae of past contexts, there was also a desire for the most experimental and eclectic principles. The linguist Hermann Osthoff had observed that superlatives were very often adopted from [End Page 648] foreign languages. Warburg took up the gambit and hypothesized that icons of extreme emotional arousal must therefore have been imported from antiquity. Richard Semon had theorized “the mneme” as a catch-all for an organism’s mnemonic capacities (incorporating memory, habit, and heredity). Warburg took it as a point of departure for thinking of artistic patrimony as a storage system for cultural memory. Charles Darwin had analyzed how expressions of emotion in animals would float free of the situations in which they originally had utility. Warburg then investigated the mannerist tendencies visible in the muscle-rhetorics of physical and facial pose as an analogous floating free of affective stance.

Combining these tastes for vertiginous detail and arcane, esoteric, eclectic principles (as one might say), Warburg then dove down the rabbit hole of Renaissance astrology. In that world of myriad coincidence, law and chance became indistinguishable. One rule-based system’s chance encounter with another rule-based system would generate fate—at once opportunistic and out of one’s hands. An inflationary sense of cause, causal integration, and the density of the weave in the cosmic fabric meant that Warburg became overly attuned to the vicissitudes of the daily newspaper. He—topos—was “a seismograph.” Brother to Nietzsche, brother to Burckhardt. How, comes the question, would such a sensitive register of world events cope with the First World War? The extreme contingency of the war—a shell fragment here (death), a shell fragment there (life)—transformed Warburg’s lust for detail into a debility that endangered and then shattered his mental health. In November 1918, Warburg took a revolver and threatened to kill his wife and children in order to “save” them from an uncertain future with the war lost and a revolution at hand. We cannot say why, but we fixate upon the scene.

In the standard received version of Warburg, the ensuing period becomes a struggle for sanity. For six long years, he was institutionalized—treated first by Arnold Lienau in Hamburg (1918–19), then by Hans Berger in Jena (1920–21), and finally by Ludwig Binswanger and his associates at the Sanatorium Bellevue in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (1921–24). We punctuate these lost years with the brilliant piece on word and image in the age of Luther published eventually in 1920 and the 1923 recollection of the time he spent in 1896 with Native Americans in Oraibi, Arizona. Even if it is not strictly speaking true, we repeat the line that this 1923 talk was a test of his lucidity that earned him his freedom. And we say, over and over again, that sanity here was the constitution of a thought-space, a Denkraum, a space of restraint and freedom that establishes a buffer between object and subject. Mental health, in this reading, was a kind of detachment [End Page 649] from the causal flow of the world. It was a capacity to defer reaction. It was a capacity not to react to every potential stimulant, clue, sign.

Does Denkraum lobotomize? No—this was not the kind of equanimity that would be anesthetized and indifferent to all appearances. The task was to forge a position between radical identification with what one perceived and the extreme equidistance generated by mathematization. It was as if Warburg’s memory of the trip to America in the 1890s sparked a return to polarity as the essential structural presupposition. For him, not the circle but the ellipse was the constituent figure. That is, in place of the system with a single center, there was the system with two equipotent and irreducible centers. At one extreme, the scholarly literature says, there will be the hypertrophy of a mimetic capacity to lose oneself in the bodily reproduction (reenactment) of the world and its phenomena. Moving like the antelope, as Warburg intimated, one partakes in the being of the antelope. One elides oneself into the set, “Antelope.” At the other extreme, there will be a mathematical transcription of motion into an abstract medium, where the universe as mathematical model is “over there,” separate from the world of appearances because the model is in all places and at all times simultaneously. Everywhere and nowhere in particular, the model escapes or masters vicissitude, and it permits therefore a calm judgment of the here and now.

Of course, we may then notice the potential irony of this twin-starred system: we know the antelope because we make its movements with our own bodies; we know the cosmos because our model of it is fashioned from the intellectual movements of our own minds (the human fictions of “point,” “line,” “surface,” “volume”). The absolute “thisness” of our mimesis of the antelope and the absolute “thatness” of our modeling of the cosmos take on a comparable absoluteness. There are no remainders at either end of this spectrum. The “I” and the “it” are one and the same in the antelope dance; the model and the cosmos are one and the same in mathematization. Fearful of both, we then speak of the great unfinished work of Warburg’s last years up to 1929, the image atlas Mnemosyne, as an alternative to these twinned absolutes. The image atlas was Warburg’s attempt to organize the European visual imagination by gathering images onto panels, each of which explored a different thematic. The “snapshot” formulas of human pathos that are recorded in the artworks around which Warburg circled and upon which he built for four decades are set out alongside one another in the never completed magnum opus. Photographs of sculptures, sarcophagi, reliefs, tapestries, frescos, paintings, and indeed photographs are thrown together. In this schema, proximity produces some kind of constellation but there is no resolution of the part into the whole, [End Page 650] no subsumption of the particular in the universal. Clusters of possibility, these—we say—are repositories of repetition, inversion, and innovation.

Articulating my own response to Warburg—the man, his ideas, and his time—is a task that I am undertaking elsewhere in other genres. At issue in this review essay are our interpretations, the stories we tell. Beyond the assorted nostra just recounted, what newer, fresher, more vibrant Warburgs have been brought into view by recent research?

It will be commonly accepted that a thing is never a thing in and of itself. A “thing” is a matrix of tensions: it both exists in relationship to a particular context and protrudes out from its background. Just so, in her Dreamland of Humanists, Emily Levine paints a group portrait of Warburg alongside Ernst Cassirer, the philosopher of symbols, and Erwin Panofsky, the art theorist and historian, in order to add a Hamburg variant to the firmament of Weimar “Schools.” She wishes to distinguish a “Hamburg School” to put alongside Frankfurt School critical theory, the Marburg and Southwest Schools of Neo-Kantianism, the Weimar/Dessau/Berlin “School” of the Bauhaus movement, and others. The real purpose and import of her book is to conceptualize these Hamburg thinkers as a group and to show the ways in which this school of thought was both of a piece with its time and place and also defined (at least in part) by its emigration—that is, by its de- and re-contextualization in the 1930s and beyond. Buried in the middle of Levine’s book is a quotation from Cassirer that functions as a kind of clarifying presupposition for much of her (re)construction of this Hamburg School: “the universal can be perceived only in the particular, while the particular can be thought only in reference to the universal.”5 The assumption is that both perception and thought can only be understood as tensions.

A number of the book’s core concerns can be organized as variations on this base line. Levine argues that, because its political heritage illuminates a distinctive type, we need Hamburg particularity in order to think the more general category of Weimar Germany. Formerly a core member of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg was an oligarchic republic, an imperial “free city.” It presents problems for “the generalized characterizations of Germany as autocratic, aristocratic, and insular,” says Levine in an indicative opening gambit.6 On her account, we need the liberal, republican, and pro-Enlightenment Hamburg School so as to combat the now much-criticized notion that Weimar was “a republic without republicans,” and in [End Page 651] order to construct a kind of intellectual counterweight to the respective political extremes of Martin Heidegger, on the one hand, and the Frankfurt School, on the other.7 Following Percy Schramm, Levine wishes to take seriously the possibility that Hamburg constituted a Sonderfall, a “special case,” diverging from a putative German Sonderweg, “special path,” to modernity. Nor, according to her, should we conclude—in light of what happened later—that the pro-republican proto-civic-humanist leanings of the Hamburg School were naïve.8 Warburg died in 1929. She would not have us judge his positions from the vantage points of 1933 or 1945.

Again, we see the Cassirer presupposition at work in Levine’s claim that “the thesis of the Hamburg School—that context was a necessary ingredient for the study of icons and symbols—found expression, outside their work, in their own lives.” The particularity of scholarship is expressed more generally in life. Conversely, the particular experience of living a contextualized life informs the scholarship. Witness how, “despite their best efforts, [the] ‘universalist’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ work [of the Hamburg School] was ultimately coded as Jewish.”9 Icons and symbols hover between particular and universal, and they oscillate between local contexts and distant ones in order to find their cognates. But, true to the topos that antiquity’s cosmopolitans were originally stateless (citizens in no polis, they counted themselves citizens of the cosmos), Levine details the speed with which the predicate “cosmopolitan” could be tagged as a “Semitic particularity.” And the chapter immediately following this assertion (“Private Jews, Public Germans”) is perhaps the finest of the book, for there we get a sense of the double bind in which Warburg found himself as both “particular” Jew and “universal” German.

Consider also the case of Panofsky’s de- and re-contextualization. His career began in Hamburg. The greater part of his working life was spent in the United States. What signs were there of this intellectual “translation”? Note Panofsky’s insistence on speaking English when he returned to Germany after the war: disaffiliating. Note the evisceration of his engagement with the thought of Heidegger in the 1932 essay “Zum Problem der Beschreibung” in the post-1933 and postwar versions of that piece: expunging.10 And note Levine’s injunction that Panofsky’s move from Hamburg to Princeton poses “a challenge to context-based history of ideas.”11 Although [End Page 652] she does not develop the thought fully, Levine’s implication is that anyone who wishes to study “ideas in context” must think carefully about the sense in which utterances are not only the latest tokenings of language games, the conventions of which are established to a greater or lesser degree, but also assertions that may be carried into a host of future contexts as yet unimagined. Indeed, there is a sense in which this kind of carrying into future contexts is the very essence of the historicity of ideas.12 Once again, we see the Cassirer axiom at work in Levine’s interests: context is particularity; de- and re-contextualization partake in a process of universalization.

Levine’s is the work of a historian, and, although she affiliates herself with other modes of inquiry too, her book sits squarely in the tradition of the history of ideas: she reads the texts of important intellectual figures, and she gives them fresh valence by reading them against the backgrounds of their various contexts. The broader secondary literature on Warburg does not invest in historical context in the same way. Scholars from many different disciplines have a stake in him, and intellectual historians would consign themselves to a kind of disciplinary provincialism if they refused to read beyond the genre limits of their own professional obligations. Such inter- and multi-disciplinary roving has long been one of the talents and commitments of intellectual historians. In what follows, I pursue the literature on Warburg through these various disciplinary domains.

In their Warburg, Cassirer, und Einstein im Gespräch, Horst Bredekamp and Claudia Wedepohl take up the task of thinking Warburgian modernity as a tension between mimesis and mathematization. The book is preoccupied with Warburg’s assertion that “modern thinking began with the replacement of the old received pre-eminence of the circle-form with an acceptance of the ellipse.”13 Its core intuition is that we should read this line alongside Warburg’s exchanges with Cassirer and particularly Albert Einstein. (Of course, the focus on Warburg’s conversation engagements is not coincidental: dialogue has an elliptical, double-centered structure.) Kepler’s modeling of the orbit of Mars is the ostensible point of reference. [End Page 653] In fact, the concern is less with how people like Kepler thought and more with how we (and our progenitors, Warburg and Einstein) think they thought. Central is the conjecture—again, only a conjecture—that we should read Einstein’s 1930 assertion that Kepler was a model of how to integrate hypothetical and empirical talents alongside Warburg’s 1928 assertion to Einstein that Kepler was so crucial because he could reveal the close interpenetration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of natural philosophical and astrological competences. The idea is that the ellipse is both an elegant solution to a particular data complexity as well as an emblem of the unthinkability of the rational without the irrational. On this account, magic and mathematics are the twin suns of scientific discovery. The intimation is that Einstein could not follow Warburg in taking both seriously, and so he transmuted the magic/mathematics dyad into hypothesis/data. But what, really, does “magic” mean here, and how are we to think its mimetic capacities in relation to mathematics? There are ways of beginning to unpack this apparently impenetrable question, but Wedepohl and Bredekamp do not address the issue directly.

Are there alternatives to the debilitatingly radical separation of pre-modern and modern, mimesis and mathematics, unreason and reason that some may find embedded in the Bredekamp and Wedepohl project? I think we can find alternatives in the Warburgs Denkraum volume recently edited by Martin Treml, Sabine Flach, and Pablo Schneider, and in Christopher Johnson’s Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images. The point of departure for the Treml et al. volume is a major Warburg topos situated at the intersection of magic and mathematics just recounted: “we are in the Age of Faust, when the modern scientist—caught between magical practice and cosmological mathematics—attempts to fashion, between himself and the object, a thought-interval of discretion [Denkraum der Besonnenheit].”14 The book presents a variety of glosses of this famously intriguing and yet elusive concept of Denkraum. Now, there are many good articles in this volume, but two particularly good pieces help us think through the impasse between magic and mathematics—one by Spyros Papapetros, the other by Thomas Hensel. Because there is not sufficient [End Page 654] space here to discuss all the essays in the volume adequately, I focus on these two.

More often than not, Denkraum—and, given that any English translation already privileges some particular interpretation, I’ll use the German as a placeholder for the notion that I provisionally translated above as “thought interval”—is understood as a space between subject and object that permits something like a hesitating between the inputs of sense and the outputs of action (or passion), a hesitating called “thought.” Many Warburgians construe the concept in this way (as did Warburg himself, often enough). Indeed, this construal sounds conventional, and that is its problem. Hesitation is valued but not explained in the standard received interpretation. Papapetros helps us think the concept more deeply by approaching it, surprisingly, through the concept of Schmuck, adornment. Tacitly working from an Adolf Loos–inspired sense of how modernity may be thought of as desiring to reduce architectural form to pure function, Papapetros proposes that Denkraum disappears with the disappearance of ornament. A world without ornamentation is a world in which everything is what it is without remainder.15 In Papapetros’s account, Denkraum emerges as a figurative capacity to see one thing in terms of another. And it is a capacity to hypothesize that only some of the predicates of each thing (the tenor and the vehicle, in a metaphor scheme) will be generative of the tertium comparationis—namely, the thought. Thus, Denkraum is a freedom from the necessitarian world of what Warburg called the Augenblicksgötter (“the gods of the moment”), where one is overwhelmed by the sense that every predicate in a sensory array is equally integral to the phenomenon by which one is confronted.

Hensel confirms the intuition that metaphor, for instance, is not decoration in some superficial sense; that decoration is serious, and it is not the essence of metaphor but rather its product. The core of Hensel’s argument is that we understand Warburg better when we understand that metaphor produces decoration by permitting one to see that there are many predicates adjacent to a comparison that are not pertinent to it. Metaphor thus produces freedom. Why? Because the category of non-pertinence is the genuine cognitive modus of choice in attending. Hensel emphasizes Warburg’s interest in Alfred Biese’s appropriation of Giambattista Vico: “once and for all,” says Biese, “we must give up the madness that metaphor is a poetic trope in the sense of a decorating of speech (be it poetry or prose), for metaphor [End Page 655] is instead one of the basic forms of human thinking as such.”16 Poetry precedes prose, as Vico argued. Tropes are the original engines of predication and classification.

It is at precisely this point, where the cognitive value of tropes is asserted, that Johnson’s book, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images, takes us a little further. His palette of terms is different. For him, metaphor is a kind of “superimposition” or “stereoscopic vision” or Nachleben. Nachleben is that crucial Germanic and Warburgian word denoting an “afterlife” of the image that embosses the present by impressing it with a pictorial form-become-topos. Consider the following metaphor, which takes up a motif beloved by Warburg: “You are nymph” both colonizes the interlocutor with an assertion of identity and creates a field of differences. Here is the heart of Johnson’s claim: metaphor is Warburgian method. Indeed, “Warburgian metaphor creates nonconceptual ‘distance’ and so also a mutable, vital Denkraum in which the otherwise ineffable content of the human ‘Gebärdensprache’ [gesture-language] can be self-consciously translated into symbolic forms available to the artist, priest, cosmographer, and, ultimately, critic.”17 Under conditions of metaphor, gesture becomes a kind of quotation—mentioning not saying. And Warburg’s image atlas is visual quotation par excellence. Thus, “while art historians often link grisaille [painting in grey monochrome that imitates the work of relief] with chiaroscuro, viewers of the Atlas have compared it with quotation, the rhetorical figure of metanoia [a changing of mind, a repetition with difference denoting correction], as well as the suspension (epoche) urged by phenomenology so that the philosophical space of intuition and Erlebnis [experience] can be constructed.”18 Why is quotation one of the basic forms of metanoia? Because, by decontextualizing a line, one opens it up to transformation in a new context. In Warburg’s pithiest example, the gesture of protecting oneself from a cavalry charge becomes the gesture of appealing for justice. In fact, the “A is B” form of metaphor is misleading because its assertion of identity is actually a presentation of difference, a difference that must be discovered piecemeal in a process of “if …, then…” hypothesizing. We might ask, then: if we assume that the unvoiced [End Page 656] elements of the comparison are pertinent to the thought being forged here, then what follows? “Embossing,” it turns out, is a viable metaphor for metaphor because it implies the raising up of a phenomenon, rendering it convex (not concave).

In many ways, these initiatives find an echo and methodological fillip in Giorgio Agamben’s Ninfe (translated into English in 2013 by Amanda Minervini), particularly when we supplement that short book with another of the author’s works, Signatura rerum, which bears the subtitle, “On Method.” Agamben offers us an escape from the inferential straightjacket of either induction or deduction. At this juncture, C. S. Peirce’s theorization of “abduction” is frequently an alternative, but here the logical touchstone remains Aristotle. Agamben examines the passage from the Prior Analytics that speaks of relationships not between particulars and universals or universals and particulars but between particulars and particulars.19 And, for Agamben (pace Levine), this also amounts to a choice of Warburg over Cassirer. This is a choice of particular/particular relationships and not particular/universal tensions; the image atlas serves as a paradigm for the work of paradigms or an example of the logic of examples. In Agamben’s definition, “the paradigm is a single case that becomes isolated from the context of which it is a part only insofar as, exhibiting its own singularity, it renders a new ensemble intelligible, the homogeneity of which the single case itself establishes.”20 Appropriating Kant’s third critique, Agamben insists that “it is the isolate exhibition of the paradigmatic case that establishes a rule, a rule that as such can neither be applied nor stated.”21 Warburg’s image atlas is not “an iconographic repertory,” for Agamben; “none of the images is the original, just as none of the images is simply a copy or a repetition.” Instead, “the Warburgian Pathosformeln,” the visual forms embodying a cultural memory of affective stations, are “so many hybrids of archetype and phenomenon, primordiality and repetition,” such that “the nymph is the paradigm of the various individual images and the various individual images are the paradigms of the nymph.”22 The universal cannot be stated. [End Page 657] If it exists at all, it exists as a matrix of tensions among exempla, all of which are themselves oscillating between case and rule.

Nymph, thus, is an example of constellation and the figurative thought space that non-identical similitude constitutes. But we must also attend at this point to the insights on motion and its stations offered by Agamben and by the analogous projects of Barbara Baert and Georges Didi-Huberman (which bear almost the same title). Recall that Warburg had been deeply interested in the figure of the nymph because it seemed to be a key example of how an art-visual imprint might be laid down in Antiquity and reappear in later centuries in the manner of an undead visitation.

For Baert, the nymph is a “threshold being,” whose intrinsic interest lies in the way in which “she appears to vacillate between a stylistic affect (wind) and an iconographic motif (dancing girl).”23 The fold, the pleat, the ripple are characteristic of the nymph’s staging of “decoration” (and this is Warburg’s famous bewegtes Beiwerk, “animated accessory”), but these features do not establish a clear relationship between forces external, internal, and historical. Inherited historical form hovers behind the nymph like a pictograph, movements of limb leave garments in their wake, and one must ask whether the strewn locks of her hair are thrown back by a gust of wind or by some sudden movement of the head. Note that this is a thematization of the indistinguishability of motions driven by internal and external causes.

For Didi-Huberman, the nymph is an icon of the rippling and decentering effects of motion. The nymph’s hair is a rippling, and her garments explore rippling’s variants: flowing, curling, bunching, folding, wrinkling, creasing, pleating. In Didi-Huberman’s gloss, folding is extension-inpotentia and creasing is the breaking of a pure plasticity that establishes habit, while pleating is a purely formal element: a gathering of the garment together, a folding back upon itself of the liquid that runs in an artificially regular water course, and a twisting of refuse left high, dry, and contorted by the flash flooding of the urban gutter. Didi-Huberman’s visual imagination is brilliant and willful. It is as if, for him, the nymph becomes a motif for plasticity or potential itself. Like Warburg himself, the nymph can be thought of a seismograph because her diaphanous “decorations” are pliable in the extreme. They take on, cast, and therefore register the motions that pass through them. Didi-Huberman argues that “the pertinent question is [End Page 658] not where—that is, when—the nymph will end up but rather how far she can go in lodging, concealing, and transforming herself.”24 He sees her in the twist of a discarded plastic bag. Ultimately, the interest is probably too formalist, but its far from trivial virtue is its capacity to bring into view a particular species of motion’s remnant.

For Agamben, the nymph is an icon of the moment in which motion separates itself from its immediate environment, but in an equivocal way. The nymph does not float entirely free of environment, but she elevates palpably out of the visual field. As we saw, intimating motion by means of static art works was one of Warburg’s central preoccupations. In Agamben, it is Bill Viola’s The Passions series that provides the more contemporary analogue for Warburg’s concerns.25 By slowing down video footage of human beings under conditions of extreme emotional arousal, to the point that at any given moment those persons appear to be still even as they are constantly in motion, Viola achieves what Agamben evocatively calls a “kairological saturation.”26 Every moment is a moment when form has been achieved, but that form is always both coming-into-being and passing away; every moment is an elastic and imprecise opportunity. Alternatively, Agamben notes, the early modern analogue is actually Domenico da Piacenza’s fifteenth-century treatise Dela arte di ballare e danzare, where the elements of dance are said to be fantasmata—namely, expressions of “a bodily promptness that is moved as if by the understanding of measure, requiring that at each interval you seem to have caught sight of Medusa’s head (as the poet says), such that, the movement completed, you are to appear made of stone in one instant, before—in the next—you take flight like a falcon moved by hunger.”27 Dance, on this account, is the isolation of poses, but the poses are to be found at and between each interval: dance especially is saturated in the kairos of rhythm. We should understand that Warburg’s thought is a central part of Agamben’s method, which is historical but in distinctive ways: historical inquiry on this account is concerned with assembling materials that organize cultural memory for the purpose of sharpening the imagination, whether that imagination be primarily visual (as in Warburg) or conceptual (as in Agamben). [End Page 659]

The point we should take from the work of Baert, Didi-Huberman, and Agamben is a replica in miniature of my overall claim regarding the currently emerging literature on Warburg: this clustering of work on the figure of the nymph neither tends toward consensus nor fragments out into mere difference; it is instead enriching, for this literature enhances our ability to attend to central concerns and to make important distinctions in humanistic inquiry.

Here is a question motivated by analogy: if implications of stasis—or coming to rest in a pose—are constitutive of time (per Domenico’s account), might it be the case that implications of motion are constitutive of space? Forgo for the time being the common presupposition that space is an abstract three-dimensionality. Here is an alternative: think of space instead as the congeries of particular possibilities for motion that surround, embed, and distinguish a particular body. I would argue that this is the intellectual gift bestowed upon us by Panofsky’s newly rediscovered habilitation, Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos. (Panofsky himself thought that the habilitation was lost, as he said in a letter dated January 28, 1964.28 In mid-2012, however, a typescript was discovered in Munich at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in the storage locker of the institute’s first director, Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, and it was identified by Stephan Klingen.) To be sure, early Panofsky is certainly not late Warburg, but we gain an invaluable angle on Warburgian kinetics when we contrast it with Panofsky’s neo-Kantian interest in the painterly constitution of space.

If we are beginning to suspect that one of the purposes of metaphor is freedom, and if one of metaphor’s modes is visual superimposition (where the image of a Y hovers over or underneath or alongside an X, so that we see “X is Y” in the metaphoric stereoscope), then Panofsky’s point of departure in the Michelangelo book is immediately relevant. Panofsky begins with a concern that he shares with Warburg (and many others): what does the initiation of motion look like? Starting and stopping are neither stably at rest nor stably in motion. The implication of starting and stopping within the visual medium can only derive from a kind of superimposition of at least two states or trajectories in one body. Tropically, we might call this a transformation of metaphor into irony, where the compossibility of surprising similarity is changed into the compossibility of surprising dissimilarity. The double-bound motion both wants and does not want, but it can [End Page 660] form a strange coherence—the contradiction as tell. Think of the discombobulated and jumbled alternation of sudden desire followed immediately by sudden aversion: “Say it now; no, don’t!” Panofsky reports and approves the topos: Michelangelo was only interested in representing entweder ‘gehemmte’ oder ‘anhebende’ Aktionen.29 That is, he worked on actions that were “constrained” or “ratcheting,” decelerating or accelerating. And, without exaggerating the similarities between Panofsky and Warburg, we should recall here that Hemmung, “blocking”—humming and hawing—was one of the conceptual prototypes that Warburg used to mark out the Denkraum der Besonnenheit.

Yet Panofsky was not ultimately interested in furthering or complicating this commonplace. He was interested in the artistic modes of generating space. True, in the first instance this was, once again, a more traditional interest in reconstructing the axes of movement that were particular to certain bodies. The motion of the earth has its axis, its linea centrale or “central line”; so too, bodies. All manner of contrapposti (that is, counterposed limbs and weights) could generate the linea centrale. And, in its counter-posed extremities, the body in equipoise would find points at which the smallest input of energy could effect the maximal motive output. That is, freedom could be visually announced as a corollary of balance. Where Raphael built out from these central lines, Michelangelo—so Panofsky argued—strove to create figures that were kubisch gebundene, “cubically bound.”30 Think of Michelangelo’s Moses—but note that the turn of the head, the fingers in the beard, and the left foot disappearing backwards indicate the beginning of motion because the right knee, the shoulders, and the base on which the statue stands all describe a cubically bound space. The crucial anatomical part, I would say, is the left index toe, which (more decisively than the big toe) breaks through the rectanguloid column that rises up virtually in our extrapolation of the plinth on which the sculpture sits. The toe violates that boundary. It performs conatus.

Ultimately, Panofsky is interested in figures whose implied motions generate the very spaces in which they are situated. Sure, “Are we looking through an implied plane at the art object?” or “Is there a plane generated by the visual field behind the central object?”—these were questions that Panofsky posed. But the innermost imperative is to discern and articulate the moments at which forms are not set in space but instead generate that [End Page 661] space: “it is crucial not that the forms [Gestalten] now have space in which to execute their arbitrary movements or take up their arbitrary positions but rather that the movements executed and positions taken seem to emerge from a power of self-determination [Selbstbestimmungskraft]—and thereby seem in some way to create space themselves.”31 Arbitrariness, movement that is beliebig, is uninteresting. Arbitrariness is a mark of severed ease. It reflects disattention to context, and its cause (whim) is paltry. The degree to which a complex of motions is worthy of attention is to be gauged by the particularity of the space of constrained possibility that it initially fashions for itself and then goes on to fracture.

Vivification is not the only process that artwork can put on display, and the great virtue of Spyros Papapetros’s On the Animation of the Inorganic is its attention to the borderlands between the animate and the inanimate, where animation both comes into being and passes away. In contrast, with its exclusive focus on breaking the bounds of one’s own structures, Panofsky’s habilitation seems brilliant but one-sided and lacking in self-awareness. Papapetros is certainly right that for Warburg the double herms of mania and depression, Dionysus and Apollo, pathos and ethos—which we can understand as variations on the motion-in-stasis thematic—always implied a double set of movements: emerging and fading. If metaphor was a kind of stereoscopic tension between one image and its double, then its others included the beginning of an indistinction between foreground and background (Dosso Dossi’s Apollo and Daphne, as Papapetros points out) or a slothful tensionlessness between foreground and background (as, I would argue, in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, where incongruity becomes a kind of deliberately slack collage work that cuts and pastes but does not superimpose).32 We can pursue the point: metaphor was neither too close nor too far away. Or, in a different way, an indistinctness of depths could be produced by mannerist bodies, which would appear melodramatic because they did not perform a layering of their gestures and were affectively too much of-a-piece. The problem with mannerist motions was that they were too smooth. They did not offer up evidence of the rich and plural stratigraphy of remnant motions. The affective stance that is neither ahead [End Page 662] of itself nor behind itself—that motion is not kairotic. It is not in and of the moment, and it does not have the pause and release discerned by Domenico da Piacenza. It is, per Kleist, marionette motion. And, in the current gloss, it is both perfect and uninteresting: CGI fake.

Papapetros’s book criss-crosses the no man’s land between the animate and the inanimate. On the one hand, the dog growls at the fluttering parasol, the slamming or the screeching door. The anxious projection of animacies onto things where there are no obvious candidates for hypothesized cause first steals and then projects a subject’s own subjectivity: “for the event of animation to take place, no external agency should be visible.”33 Warburg’s Pathosformeln function by capturing the limb-imprint of emotion in a static shot. On the other hand, coming into stasis has many modes, and we can understand Papapetros as pursuing a Warburgian interest in new terrain by attending to varied instances of “paralysis.” A late-nineties Pokémon pakapaka sequence triggers mass epileptic fits in Japan (for there is also a “frenzy of inertia”). Catherine of Siena is spellbound and motionless, entranced, before the Navicella, a no-longer-extant mosaic by Giotto. Murnau’s Nosferatu is eviscerated by the light when his silhouette arm locates a parallel with the rooftop that defines the background. Crucially, before it becomes invisible, the arm is rendered inanimate, architectonic. Whereas “animation appears to happen only as an accident—a disruptive event that destabilizes normative procedures,” de-animation on this account is a kind of crystallization process, a blending back into geometrical form.34 At this juncture, following Papapetros’s lead, we encounter Leger’s Nudes in the Forest, but crystals—per the early twentieth-century crystallography of Ernst Haekel—are alive. They move and form themselves, such that the latticework of the mineral is a brace of energy. Here, vibration and arabesque and accretive coral filigree are characteristic motions, progressively arrested. For Papapetros, Daphne—pursued by Apollo, transforming from fauna to flora—expresses the median point: “accessories-in-motion turn into accessories-in-inertia,” and “the fact that Daphne initially carries the former and ultimately embodies the latter demonstrates the essential continuity between forms of dynamic and static animation.”35

True, a more narrowly defined historical treatment of these scholarly works might ultimately attempt to place them in some kind of sequence of receptions, in order to characterize Warburg’s own Nachleben in terms of [End Page 663] what successive ages wanted and then got from him. Such a project would run the risk of assuming that the Warburgian line of inquiry stopped at Warburg’s death and that everything else has been epiphenomenon. But the line between thought and the history of thought is neither locatable nor precise. As I have argued elsewhere, assertions, concepts, ideas, practices, and even habits have a kind of virtual and potential existence. Accordingly, they do not so much dictate their future applications as hope to find in those applications their more articulate expression.36 And to anyone who says that Warburg is not a systematic thinker and therefore should not be the object of so much attention, consider what Heidegger once said about the Pre-Socratics: it would be a disaster if all of a sudden we came across their daily correspondence. Fragments are better. They facilitate recombination. They require explicitation. In sum, the work of thinking the origin is a historical task concerned principally with tracing its potential continuations: “let a thousand flowers bloom.” [End Page 664]

David L. Marshall
University of Pittsburgh


1. Aby Warburg, Fragmente zur Ausdruckskunde, ed. Ulrich Pfisterer and Hans Christian Hönes (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).

2. See Martin Warnke, “Vier Stichworte,” in Die Menschenrechte des Auges: Über Aby Warburg (Frankfurt am Main: Europaïsche Verlagsanstalt, 1980); Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg et l’image en mouvement (Paris: Éditions Macula, 1998); Matthew Rampley, Remembrance of Things Past: On Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin, (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1980).

3. “The Warburg Institute: A Special Issue on the Library and Its Readers,” ed. Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Common Knowledge 18, no. 1 (2012): 1–191. In order of citation, these expressions come at 106, 20, 50, 79, 181, and 185.

4. Warburg, Gesammelte Schriften (Teubner: Leipzig, 1932), 1:54.

5. Emily Levine, Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 168.

6. Ibid., 14.

7. Ibid., 13, 281–82.

8. Ibid., 178.

9. Ibid., 174.

10. Ibid., 268.

11. Ibid., 247.

12. See David L. Marshall, “The Implications of Robert Brandom’s Inferentialism for Intellectual History,” History and Theory 52, no. 1 (2013): 1–31, and “Intellectual History, Inferentialism, and the Weimar Origins of Political Theory,” Journal of the Philosophy of History (forthcoming).

13. Horst Bredekamp and Claudia Wedepohl, Warburg, Cassirer, und Einstein im Gespräch: Kepler als Schlüssel der Moderne (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2015), 8: “das moderne Denken in dem Moment eingesetzt habe, als dieser die althergebrachte Überlegenheit der idealen Kreisform durch die Akzeptanz der Ellipse ersetzte.” Here and below, all translations from German, French, and Italian are my own.

14. Warburg, Werke in einem Band, ed. Martin Treml, Sigrid Weigel, and Perdita Ladwig (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), 484–85: “Wir sind im Zeitalter des Faust, wo sich der moderne Wissenschaftler—zwischen magischer Praktik und kosmologischer Mathematik—den Denkraum der Besonnenheit zwischen sich und dem Objekt zu erringen versuchte”; cited in Warburgs Denkraum: Formen, Motive, Materialien, ed. Martin Treml, Sabine Flach, and Pablo Schneider (Munich: Fink, 2014), 9.

15. Treml et al., Warburgs Denkraum, 118.

16. Alfred Biese, Das Metaphorische in der dichterischen Phantasie (Haack: Berlin, 1889), 10: “es ist daher endlich der Wahn aufzugeben, daß die Metapher ein poetischer Tropus im Sinne eines Zierrates der Rede—sei es nun in Prosa oder Poesie—sei, sondern sie ist eine jener primären Grundformen unseres menschlichen Denkens überhaupt.” The sentence is also cited in Treml et al., Warburgs Denkraum, 82.

17. Christopher Johnson, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 130.

18. Ibid., 95.

19. Aristotle, Prior Analytics, 69a13–15, cited in Agamben, Signatura rerum: Sul metodo (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008), 20ff.

20. Ibid., 20: “il paradigma è un caso singolo che viene isolato dal contesto di cui fa parte, soltanto nella misura in cui esso, esibendo la propria singolarità, rende intelligibile un nuovo insieme, la cui omogeneità è esso stesso a costituire.”

21. Ibid., 23: “è la sola esibizione del caso paradigmatico a costituire una regola, che, come tale, non può essere né applicata né enunciata.”

22. Ibid., 30–31: “Un modo certamente errata di leggere la tavola sarebbe di vedere in essa qualcosa come un repertorio iconografico.… Una lettura appena più attenta della tavola mostra che nessuna delle immagini è l’originale, così come nessuna delle immagini è semplicemente copia o ripetizione.” Instead, “le Pathosformeln warburghiane sono degli ibridi di archetipo e fenomeno, di primavoltità e ripetizione,” such that “la ninfa è il paradigma delle singole immagini e le singole immagini sono i paradigmi della ninfa.”

23. Barbara Baert, Nymph: Motif, Phantom, Affect. A Contribution to the Study of Aby Warburg (Leuven: Peeters, 2014), 4.

24. Georges Didi-Huberman, Ninfa moderna: Essai sur le drapé tombé (Paris: Gallimard, 2002), 11: “La question n’est donc pas de savoir où—voire quand—finira Ninfa, mais jusqu’où elle est capable de se nicher, de se cacher, de se transformer.”

25. See the exhibition catalog, Bill Viola et al., Bill Viola: The Passions (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003).

26. Giorgio Agamben, Ninfe (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2007), 9: “saturazione cairologica.”

27. Cited in Agamben, Ninfe, 12: “una prestezza corporale, la quale è mossa cum lo intelecto del mesura … facendo requie a cadauno tempo che pari aver veduto lo capo di medusa, como dice el poeta, cioè che facto el moto, sii tutto di pietra in quello istante e in istante metti ale come falcone che per paica mosso sia.”

28. See Dieter Wuttke, ed., Erwin Panofsky Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011), 5:440, nr. 3013a.

29. Erwin Panofsky, Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 220.

30. Ibid., 142–43.

31. Ibid., 101: “Nicht, daß die Gestalten von jetzt an Raum haben, um beliebige Bewegungen ausführen und beliebige Stellungen einnehmen zu können, ist das Wesentliche, sondern daß die Bewegungen, die sie ausführen und die Stellungen, die sie einnehmen, aus einer freien Selbstbestimmungskraft zu entspringen und sich dadurch gewissermaßen selber Raum zu schaffen scheinen.”

32. Spyros Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 307–8.

33. Ibid., 47–48.

34. Ibid., 20.

35. Ibid., 296.

36. Again, see Marshall, “Implications of Brandom’s Inferentialism,” 1–31.

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