Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2016
Spyros Papapetros On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 412 pp.; 10 color ills.; 164 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226645681)
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“Too many examples, too many quotes, too many theses, and (perhaps the most criminal of all) too many ideas.” So Spyros Papapetros describes the critical responses circa 1893 to the idiosyncratic Aby Warburg’s dissertation in his recent book On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life. A certain kind of contemporary reader, especially one habituated to a hairsplitting historicism, might be tempted to raise similar objections to Papapetros’s handsome volume. But that reader, like Warburg’s, would be entirely missing the point. For behind the gossamer of connections that Papapetros delicately weaves around his cast of characters—animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, benevolent and malevolent—there is a radical historiographical proposition that is poised to be an implicit critique of that cautious historicism. Papapetros too splits hairs, it turns out, but in an entirely different manner.

Papapetros’s book is the latest foray into the late nineteenth-century Germanic discourse that has come to be known—somewhat misleadingly—as “empathy theory” in the English-speaking world, a discourse to which both aesthetic modernism in general and the discipline of art history in particular are epistemologically indebted. The “empathy” label in English found traction in no small part thanks to the collection of essays translated into English by the Getty two decades ago (Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds. and trans., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893, Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994). The introduction to that invaluable volume framed this discourse as a history of ideas from Immanuel Kant onwards. Others (most notably Mark Jarzombek, The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, and History, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Robin Curtis and Gertrud Koch, eds., Einfühlung: Zu Geschichte und Gegenwart eines ästhetischen Konzepts, Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2009; and Juliet Koss, Modernism After Wagner, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) complicated an understanding of this hermetic discourse by giving more historical texture to what had previously been presented as a purely intellectual history.

In On the Animation of the Inorganic, Papapetros follows a different methodological trail. The book is organized into six chapters that form two symmetrical halves, each of which has the structure of an elaborately designed maze. As Papapetros puts it, the book “is not only about the animation of objects, but also the reanimation of an earlier form of scholarship” (xiv), especially that of Warburg. There is no pretension here that the historian should be distanced from his object of study. On the contrary, Papapetros admits to empathizing completely with Warburg, who used “a serpent-like method” (111) to trace the many lives and afterlives of such things as curvilinear motifs of snakes, fluttering fabrics, and flowing hair from antiquity to the Renaissance and back again. Warburg’s primary operation as a historian was to transfer the accessory from the periphery to the center of representation. Channeling the German art historian, Papapetros constructs similarly “diagonal alliances between discursive terrains” and “invents [his] own composite practices” (xv). In the first half of the book, on animation, Papapetros traces animated “accessories” in Pokémon, Tito Vignoli, Sandro Botticelli, Charles Darwin, and, of course, Warburg himself. The second half of the book on the inanimate performs a similar meandering through Fernand Léger, forests, the Golem from Paul Wegener’s film and Gustav Meyrink’s novel, Nosferatu, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Daphne, and Salvador Dalí. (The hybridity of the objects around which Papapetros weaves his narrative should be noted here as well as his interest in anachronisms, afterlives, and regressions—in other words, temporal frames that depart from a linear chronology.) Wilhelm Worringer, whose 1907 dissertation Abstraktion und Einfühlung both diagnosed and modeled modernism’s “definite movement from empathy to abstraction” (xi), sits in the middle of the two halves of the book. Like Worringer, Papapetros sees the interchanges between the animate and the inanimate not only as competing aesthetic principles but also as a “contest between two epistemological mentalities concerning the agency of objects” (133).

While all these figures take turns at center stage, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan lurk in the background of the book at all times. Freud’s presence, in fact, might explain its narrative structure more than that of Warburg’s. Papapetros’s graceful leaps from one episode to the next—often with the help of things seemingly as trivial as a strand of hair—produce the effect of a Freudian diagram describing the field of connections constituting a parapraxis. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud’s mind, unable to remember the name of an artist whose work he saw in Italy, jumps from one proper name to another with the help of the most tenuous of connections. There is no straightforward path from Botticelli, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, and Trafoi to Luca Signorelli, the name that Freud struggles to remember.

Thus, it is with reference to Freud that the ingenuity of the hairsplitting unique to Warburg’s and to Papapetros’s history writing may become clear. Animation, Papapetros explains, works like the Freudian dreamwork: it is an operation that “intensifies and further distorts memory images while superimposing them with ideal mental patterns” (60) with the result that the seemingly trivial dominates the whole. For Freud, of course, while the dreamwork was overdetermined, the cause of the chain of connections in a parapraxis was repression—in the instance of the Signorelli parapraxis, of the painful memory of a patient who had committed suicide. In the field of connections crafted by Papapetros in On the Animation of the Inorganic, by contrast, there is no one cause. This is not a historian who will hasten to attribute the endless back-and-forth play between the animate and the inanimate to one dominant historical vector identified as the primary repression: not to political developments bedeviling the early twentieth century, not to the proverbial existential anxiety of modernity, and, certainly, not to capitalism. Moments of repression, if any, emerge sporadically in Papapetros’s account—France’s colonial history in Africa makes a brief appearance in the discussion of Léger, for example. But such moments of repression are never presented as the key to the larger puzzle. Not only are explanans and explananda placed on the same level in Papapetros’s account, but the figure of causality itself is broken up into an infinite number of vectors until it dissipates, like the figure of Daphne herself at the end of the book, into an extended field.

This, then, is the radical historiographical proposition of the book. If, as Papapetros tells us, Ovid’s retelling of Daphne’s transformation was an aetiological myth (aetion referring to the cause or “why” of things, he explains) (265), On the Animation of the Inorganic should be read as a historian’s aetiological rumination. Here, too, Papapetros demonstrates empathy with his object of study. This account of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourse on the animation of the inorganic can be read as an account of how incipient epistemologies at this historical moment recognized the deeply problematic nature of the concept of causality. After all, when the inanimate animates or is animated, causality is short-circuited: “Knowledge as such becomes obsolete at the moment of animation,” Papapetros explains (3). As in Papapetros’s recounting of Darwin’s story about his dog growling at a parasol moved by the wind, these are moments when the problematic frameworks inherited from Enlightenment reason—the object/subject demarcation primary among them—become exposed. Whose agency counts in Darwin’s story: the dog’s, the parasol’s, the wind’s, or the master’s?

It is in this sense that Papapetros’s book has urgency today. The Enlightenment has never ceased to produce its own critiques, of course, but our contemporary moment shares surprisingly much with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century moment on which Papapetros focuses, a moment when a discourse on animation questioned the agency of humans and things in the universe. How to write histories at such moments, when the conceptual foundations of our thinking seem not as secure as previously imagined? Papapetros’s book provides one compelling answer.

Zeynep Çelik Alexander
Associate Professor, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto

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