Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2009
Karen Lang Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 304 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780801488559)
Philippe-Alain Michaud Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion Trans. Sophie Hawkes. New York: Zone Books, 2004. 404 pp.; 100 ills. Cloth $37.95 (9781890951399)
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In 1886, the twenty-year old Aby Warburg, scion of the Hamburg banking family, began to keep records of his book purchases. In the same year, he enrolled as a student at the University of Bonn to study art history, archaeology, classical mythology, and the philosophy of history. He spent 1888–89 in Florence, assisting August Schmarsow in the founding of a German art-historical institute. Apart from a subsequent stint at the University of Strassburg, he spent most of his life as a private scholar in Hamburg, with the exception of a long journey to the United States and specifically to the Hopi mesas of Arizona in 1895–96. The trip was foundational for his sense of art and anthropology and has become key to the scholarship on his work and legacy. In 1901–2, he received family support for a systematic collection, and by 1904 he began to think of bequeathing it to an important institution—either the Hamburg City Library or the German Institute in Florence. It remained in Hamburg upon his death in 1929 (see Fritz Saxl, “The History of Warburg’s Library [1886–1944],” a memoir from 1943 first published as an appendix to E. H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 325–38). In 1933, its sixty-thousand volumes were rescued from the Nazis and moved to the University of London, where it remains, expanding but also intact, organized according to Warburg’s baroque idiosyncrasies and according to his bibliophilic principle of “the law of the good neighbor.” With a beneficent guide, chaos becomes cosmos. A reader pulling a book from the original collection is likely to encounter an ex libris label stamped “KBW”: Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg.

We Germanocentrists tend to fetishize the untranslatability of Kulturwissenschaft. But we have our reasons. Its practice engages cultural history, analysis, and interpretation according to a depth/surface dialectic where meaning resides and must be coaxed into visibility. The image, according to this model, can be interpreted as a beautiful symptom. The model offers a historical and anthropological challenge to art history, thus throwing a gauntlet first to art-historical scholarship. In recent years, the Warburg approach has been explicitly reclaimed by an argument in favor of a cultural history of the image as part of a continuing critique (Warburg’s critique) of the formalism of art history and in a newer dissatisfaction with the surface-to-surface limitations of semiotically based visual studies. Insofar as the image itself can be extended metonymically into the semiotic surface of the contemporary moment, then the cultural analysis or cultural history of the image becomes a depth analysis of the present, or indeed a depth analysis of the past/present dialectic in any image or any moment at the point of its production. In at least one context, the Warburgian history/analysis of the image has produced a veritable institution; I refer to the Centre CATH (Cultural Analysis, Theory, and History) at the University of Leeds. Warburg’s presence is less explicit but just as present in the institution on which the Centre-CATH is modeled, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA) of the University of Amsterdam.

In recent years as well, scholarly attention to Warburg’s method and to Warburg himself has increased, though these two agendas are not easy to combine. Anthropology and art history have not yet produced the fusion for which one might hope. Warburg’s own anthropology shows many of the practices of the discipline’s early generations, including the classifications of exotic others and primitives and the assumption that the anthropological other served as a foil for the ontogeny and phylogeny of the Western self. Warburg’s idiosyncratic and compact published legacy addresses images, costumes, and performances from the Italian and Northern Renaissances. His first published study, on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in 1893, was followed by essays on the Florentine banker and art patron Francesco Sassetti (1902 and 1907) and by a study of paganism in Luther and Melanchthon in 1920. These works share a combination of scholarly passion, original juxtapositions, and autobiographical investment. Sassetti, for example, was a banker and arts patron based in Florence and (as representative of the Medici Bank) in Antwerp. In Florence he patronized Ghirlandaio, encouraging the latter’s aesthetic contact with Hugo van der Goes. Warburg famously described himself according to a triple polarity: northern German and Jewish in origin, Florentine in spirit.

For Warburg, the key to a reasonable negotiation with the return of pagan antiquities and their demons was the principle of “distance.” This principle can be understood as an abiding remnant of Kantian aesthetics. It is at once an aesthetic and psychological principle of distance between observer and the object; a historical separation between past and present; and a principle of secularity marking an at least partial distinction between humanity and the sacred (in both its divine and demonic varieties). The European Renaissance is for Warburg the moment of the achievement of that distance through the production of symbolic representations understood to separate the sign from the signified, but it is also the moment (contra Jacob Burckhardt) of the historical and psychological inadequacy of that taking of distance. The iconography of the Sassetti chapel plays out this scenario through the story and imagery of the autobiographically invested Sassetti, who functions at least partially as a mirror of Warburg himself. Thus Ghirlandaio places Sassetti in the picture, but as an observer of the scene rather than as an actor in it.

Warburg’s emotional polarities were not as gracefully juxtaposed as his aesthetic and theoretical ones. Following a mental collapse after the German defeat of November 1918, he was institutionalized for likely schizophrenia and manic depression until1924. In April 1923, to an invited audience in Ludwig Binswanger’s Kreuzlingen Sanatorium, he gave a lecture called “Images from the Pueblo Indians of North America,” a text of concise beauty and passion and a virtual microcosm of the images and issues that traverse his career. The central image and analysis, the Hopi serpent ritual, served as an overdetermined allegory for the human manipulation of ancient demons—physical, cultural, psychic, and political.

Freud’s concepts of Nachtraeglichkeit and the return of the repressed are close relatives of Warburg’s leitmotiv of the survival of pagan antiquity. That legacy is normatively mixed. To a rationalized modernity it offers both vitalism and chaos; beauty, movement, and violence. Two of its symptoms are schizophrenia (from which Warburg himself suffered) and fascism, which he diagnosed, in Rome in 1929, as the return of paganism to Europe. Warburg’s authorized and principal intellectual biographer, E. H. Gombrich, insisted that his agenda strove to protect Western rational modernity from forms of the irrational. Gombrich refused to address Warburg’s own psychic disturbances. Moreover, he simplified Warburg’s argument about “distance,” asserting that pagan antiquity was thus something to be overcome along with other forms of spiritual exuberance and religious passion, which for Gombrich’s generation had returned to Europe in the form of fascism. But Gombrich was a positivist and a rationalist even without fascism, and later scholars have tended to emphasize Warburg’s other side, the side interested in a Nietzschean vitalism that opposed bourgeois constriction. These are not easy alternatives to resolve. We want to remember twentieth-century thinkers at least in part for what they can teach us about confronting fascism, and at the same time we want to be attentive to how the traumas of the European twentieth century show their scars even—especially—on these thinkers as well as on our own recuperative intellectual histories. In these respects, disciplinary sociology combines with generational and cultural differences.

The two books under review fall into the complicated story in interesting ways. They are both strong, imaginative studies. They share a profound sympathy for Warburg’s eccentric mind and the ways his thinking can ground disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, while at the same time resisting the codifying claims of school-making. Their differences are marked by disciplinary and indeed culturally and nationally inflected academic discursive practices. Lang organizes Warburg in terms of a largely philosophical tradition and as a result does a great service to the history of aesthetics. Michaud’s juxtapositions engage photography and film, i.e., technologies of the surface that are contemporaneous to Warburg’s early innovations. Both studies disavow interest in the personal Warburg as he would have understood himself, however; and in this way they ironically duplicate the self-imposed constraints of Gombrich, who is by no means their model.

The “image in motion” of Michaud’s perfect title suggests both the screen motions of film and the depth disturbances of psychoanalysis. Both are contemporaneous with Warburg’s own writings. Michaud’s argument itself takes the form of a montage, which is both historicizing and ahistorical, both appealing and frustrating. The book offers a helpful contextualization of Warburg’s early work. The 1893 study of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus highlighted, as Michaud recounts, implied movement over compositional stasis. In January 1894, W. K. L. Dickson’s kinetoscope produced, at the Edison Studios, the “Record of a Sneeze”; in September of the same year he filmed two strips of performances danced by Native Americans in the traveling Buffalo Bill Show, Indian War Council and Sioux Ghost Dance. Also in 1894, Etienne-Jules Marey wrote in a text called Movement of his attempts to put photographic images in motion by dissociating movement from the body and its representations. In Michaud’s summary, “instead of representing the body devoid of movement, he represented movement through an eclipse of the body” (88). As is well known, in July 1895, “the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud,” just in time to be described according to the form of the moving image. Warburg’s understanding of the image in terms of movement and desire thus parallels the development of the technologically moving image, as well as Freud’s technologization of the dream as a screen event.

Warburg’s own work culminated in a “memory atlas” called Mnemosyne that was displayed as a montage of dialectical images. Michaud plays close attention to this project and offers some insightful analogues of memory-as-montage, ending with a short appendix on Jean-Luc Godard. But he overlooks the struggle with history that forms Warburg’s intellectual as well as personal passion. Michaud cites Godard’s description of the history of cinema as a “saturation of magnificent signs that bathe in the light of their absence of explanation,” an appealing reference to the mysterious semiotics of the image in a way that appears continuous from Botticelli to Godard himself (262). Yet the relationship of continuity to repetition and montage is not obvious. One might still heed Dominick LaCapra’s warning, from the 1980s, against “weak montage.”

There is a larger polemic at work here, both well motivated and itself problematic. The revitalization of Warburg implicitly opposed the intellectual biography codified in Gombrich’s 1970 study, written over many years from the vantage point of the directorship of the Warburg Institute. Gombrich was a positivist from Vienna who saw in Warburg a historiography of the image that sought to protect Western modernity from dangerous vitalisms, including fascism in its varieties. Michaud’s sympathy for the “animist” and “ecstatic” dimensions of Warburg’s recuperation of the image in motion, with its Nietzschean roots, thus wrestles iconology away from its inheritors, who, as Carlo Ginzburg pointed out in a well-known essay of 1992, flattened and froze the image as they inherited it from Warburg himself (Carlo Ginzburg, “From Aby Warburg to E. H. Gombrich: A Problem of Method,” in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). This polemic emerges at a considerable intellectual and political price.

Lang’s elegantly titled Chaos and Cosmos brings Warburg into closer fraternity with Ernst Cassirer than twentieth-century criticism has allowed, and does so ambitiously, aptly, and necessarily bringing the latter’s hero Kant along for the ride. The book is episodic and uneven (suggesting an embroidery of various concerns and writing exercises), but timely and important as well. Proceeding from the young Kant’s confessed “contemplation of a starry heaven on a pleasant night,” her argument strives to pull the earlier Kant’s sympathy for “concepts which can be felt but not described” into closer contact with the science of knowledge of the mature Critiques: “If in the first Critique nature is overcome by reason, nature is never entirely left behind” (48). Kant ratifies the argument himself, she suggests, with his juxtaposition of “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me” in the Critique of Practical Reason of 1788.

This German dialectic of sensibility and sense, aesthetic experience (chaos) and aesthetic theory (cosmos) does not promise a reconciliation of the polarity. It is indeed the more generous program of neo-Kantian aesthetics recognized by Erwin Panofsky and Cassirer, as well as Warburg and Walter Benjamin, all of whom are addressed in the book, as it is of Hannah Arendt, who is not. Arendt’s “love of the world” offers political theory a version of the “aesthetic way of knowing” that Lang calls for in her conclusion.

Warburg makes a second-chapter entrance in the company of Cassirer—a well-staged rapprochement of the two Hamburg colleagues. Cassirer holds an unjustly abject position in the standard intellectual history of the twentieth century, as the “loser” of the so-called Davos debate of 1929 against Martin Heidegger. Lang’s case for Cassirer is one for epistemology over ontology, to be sure, but for an epistemology that recognizes the will to ontology. Here one of Warburg’s mottoes (not used by Lang) is both instructive and complicated: “Athen will eben immer wieder neu aus Alexandrien zurueckerobert sein” (“Athens wants always to be reconquered anew by Alexandria”). Of course standard ideological polarities are in play here: knowledge is possessed by the West, the European, the scientist, the male observer—in all cases nostalgic (to a point) for the Oriental, the female, the aesthetic, the “primitive.” The “will” in the formulation is redolent of Alois Riegl’s core category of Kunstwollen, which made him a hero to Benjamin among others.

Warburg and Cassirer both pursued a philosophy of symbolic forms, Warburg as theorist and anthropologist. In this context Lang recounts at length the story of Warburg’s journey to the Hopi Indians in 1895–96. Here the work is derivative and opaque, because the historical argument is missing. In an experiment with Hopi schoolchildren, Warburg determined that Hopi culture (both ontogenetically and philogenetically, one presumes) was itself on the cusp of understanding the work of the symbol as the taking of distance between sign and signified, between the reference to the magical and the presence of the magical. Though Lang includes many of Warburg’s comments about this now famous trip and its significance, she omits the most potent clue: his 1907 statement to James Mooney, director of the Smithsonian, that “I always feel myself very much indebted to your Indians. Without the study of their primitive (?) civilization I never would have been able to find a larger basis for the Psychology of the Renaissance” (quoted in Anne Marie Meyer, “Aby Warburg in His Early Correspondence,” American Scholar 57, no. 3 [Summer 1988]: 450). Warburg’s Renaissance, then, also resides at the cusp of symbolization and distance, i.e., at the cusp of secularization. Warburg deviates from the Burckhardtian view by insisting, with an emotional anguish and anxiety from which he himself had little peace, as is well known, that the dialectic of culture and barbarism is not to be overcome by a triumphalist modernizing narrative, whether by the individual or by the collective.

Michaud does cite this seminal comment from 1907. But Gombrich’s ghost, in the form of the anti-vitalism that for him was closely related to anti-fascism, haunts Michaud’s happy conclusion that Warburg’s anthropology, his understanding of Hopi rituals as passages from art to life, reversed Burckhardt’s understanding of the Renaissance, where life leads to art (203). Otherwise, Michaud’s normative vitalism has no room for Gombrich or for Kant. The question seems always to remain whether political rigor is cast out along with moral repressiveness.

The juxtaposition of these two books (by accident of a reviewing assignment) enacts an abiding dialectic in twentieth-century intellectual history—the century between Warburg’s thinking and our current reception of it and return to it. Its microcosm is the famous “Davos disputation” of 1929 between Cassirer and Heidegger, a confrontation whose victory the history of philosophy has roundly given to the latter. But Cassirer went on, as a critic of and exile from fascism, to write The Myth of the State, which incorporated a measure of correction and self-critique with regard to his earlier Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Heidegger, as is better known, went on to serve the Nazi state. This context is still alive in the difference between Lang’s revival of the Kantian dimension of Warburg’s aesthetic theory (which also requires a fuller understanding of Kant’s own positions than the standard accounts provide) and Michaud’s revival of exuberance in its varied technological mediations.

There is a discursive elephant in the room here, and that is the clear but often neglected fact that all the thinkers in play (except of course for Kant and Heidegger) were Jews. Their subject positions as Jews were highly complicated, and became all the more so as their “object positions” were increasingly reified and banalized under the Nazi regime. With the exceptions of Charlotte Schoell-Glass’s Aby Warburg und der Antisemitismus: Kulturwissenschaft als Geistespolitik (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1998; recently translated as Aby Warburg and Anti-Semitism, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008), Meyer’s seminal article “Aby Warburg in His Early Correspondence," and my own treatment in an interpretive essay following a translation of Warburg’s lecture Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), Warburg scholars have not sustained an analysis of Warburg’s Jewishness and attitudes toward Judaism, ironically escaping the interpretation of meaning that their subject avowed out of a fear of duplicating either discrimination or identity politics. The books under review here perpetuate this neglect. In Lang’s Chaos and Cosmos, this is an unmarked absence. In Michaud’s Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, the absence combines with a disavowal of the issue, suggesting a potentially high level of anxiety, shared with other European scholars, about the methods and languages adequate to the self-reflexive reintegration of Jewish issues, subject positions, and thinkers into twentieth-century European discourse. The mask of universalism is often worn to cover anxieties about specificity and difference.

Michael P. Steinberg
Director, Cogut Center for the Humanities, Keeney Professor of History and Professor of Music, Brown University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.