Number 134, Spring 2016 (Read on Highwire)
by Christopher Wood
The essay begins:
Romance is a plot driven by interaction among willful, desiring persons within constraining envelopes of social conventions and natural laws. In romance, both the desire-shaping resistance to will and the acquiescence of the world in human ambitions are concretized in things, naturalia and artifacts alike, endowed with unexpected powers. Characters acquire, exchange, hide, and converse with rings, swords, articles of clothing, trees, birds, and the like. According to Italo Calvino, “The magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events.” Such tokens function as protagonists in medieval legends and sagas, chivalric romances, the neochivalric epics of Ariosto or Spenser, and the modern novel. “Around the object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself.” The thing arrests and then restarts the plot. Interactions with things or animals substitute for interpersonal, psychological relations when the literary means to represent such relations are lacking. The bundle of shifting desires and emotions that is a person can more easily “settle” on a jewel or a horse than on another unstable person.
In the romance, the thing provides a background against which personhood is profiled. The thing shares some qualities with persons but lacks other crucial attributes such as will, voice, or conscience. The effects of agency granted to things within the fiction intensify awareness of the nonhuman qualities of such things outside the fiction, in reality. The gem or the ribbon comes into focus as a thing, as the reduced double of a person, inside a narrative. The thing is a precipitate of story that arrives to assist the story. The thing decenters personhood and is at the same time anthropomorphic, in the sense that it stands in for something that is prior to or outside the human, but is customized by the story for human apprehension. The anthropomorphism of animal or artifact in romance is uncanny because partial.
In the last several decades the device of partial anthropomorphism, or attribution of some human qualities to nonhuman entities, has been favored within critical and historical writing across several disciplines. The project signaled by the phrase “Images at Work,” title of the conference from which the present special issue arises, is a good example. Someone who writes or speaks about what images “want,” the “life” of things, or “things that talk” would seem to be making a claim, against common sense, about reality. I am personally unconvinced that pictures desire anything, or that images think, or that things live. Awaiting better demonstrations of such unlikelihoods, I can only speculate about what people really mean when they speak this way.
In the literary mode of romance, partial anthropomorphization signals not only an awareness of the limits of narrative to convey the whole of personhood but also an awareness of the limits of a person’s ability to control his or her own destiny. Similarly, the modern critical trope of anthropomorphization signals a recognition of, perhaps even a resignation to, the limits of personhood. To speak about nonsentient things as if they were almost persons is to ironize the concept of the person. It is a way of speaking that calls attention to the way persons win unearned prestige by inserting themselves in advantageous positions within sentences. Sentences create subjects by associating substantives with predicates, including verbs. The subject is the source of the movement produced by the predicates. Grammar invites anthropomorphism, for inside a sentence or a plot you can simply replace “she” with “it,” and the verb does the rest. Sentences and plots threaten to expose the human subject as an artifact of grammar. The trope of misanthropic anthropomorphism is basically contending that people are things that have been activated by grammar. The trope is antifictional, discrediting modern stories—not just romances, but any story that exaggerates the autonomy of the person. The trope is antihumanist, if humanism is defined as the attribution of too much humanity to people. Writing reveals that from a standpoint outside writing, things would look more like persons and persons would look more like things. To redescribe reality as a series of interactions among persons and things is to replace the hierarchy of animate and inanimate entities with a nonhierarchical network.
The discourses of the “life of things,” actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology restore credence to pre- or nonmodern anthropomorphisms and animistic psychological habits. The tactical, calculated anthropomorphisms of modern scholarly discourse overturn the modern common sense that rejects animism as superstition, undoing invidious hierarchies of enlightened and unenlightened, Western and non-Western, modern and unmodern. Enlightened thought dismissed belief in an animated cosmos as a fiction permitting people to imagine that they participate in an external world greater than they are. Enlightenment was an assault on anthropomorphism, dedicated to replacing comfortable human-shaped fictions such as “God” with the impersonal laws of physics. The modern critical discourse of animism exposes hidden anthropocentrisms within enlightened thought that support an “imperialism” of people over animals, the earth, or things. The deepest aim of the new, counter-Enlightenment animism may not be so remote from those of traditional animisms, namely, to persuade each other that we participate in something greater than ourselves: if not a cosmos, then an ecology or a system.
The visual arts are well suited to this project, even better suited than the literary arts, because images, anyway, have limited means of reproducing the words or gestures that carry interpersonal relations. A simple, effective way of reducing the person is to deprive him or her of speech. The image or picture delivers a partial person, outside grammar. Within a picture, the leveling of people and things is already half-accomplished. “In iconic communication,” according to Gregory Bateson, “there is no tense, no simple negative, no modal marker.” Modality, or open-endedness, is a key to any ambitious model of the person as emergent, contingent, and unlimited. Because art has difficulty reproducing emergence, intersubjectivity reappears within art as misrecognition and misunderstanding, as if people all along, each time they try to communicate, have been mistaking things for people. The pictorial arts, where persons and things share a mutism, give the cue to the recent critical discourses—materialist, antihumanist, and antihierarchical—that redistribute agency across a spectrum of entities. It is especially in art history, art criticism, and art theory that the anthropomorphizing discourses of the thing have taken hold. Continue reading …
This paper argues that the “anthropomorphizing” discourses that attribute agency to images and things, stressing their efficacy and power, are motivated by a perception of a lack in the artwork, or in art itself.
CHRISTOPHER S. WOOD is Professor in the Department of German at New York University. He is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993, reissued with new afterword, 2014).
by Finbarr B. Flood
The essay begins:
Between 1935 and 1947 excavations led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Nishapur, one of the four great medieval cities of the eastern province of Khurasan, brought to light some of the earliest extant wall paintings of the Islamic period from Iran. These included a remarkable series of painted plaster dadoes found in a rectangular room measuring almost thirty square meters within a large complex identified by the excavators as an administrative or palatial structure, located in a western suburb of Nishapur known as Tepe Madrasa. The iconography of the paintings, which can be dated to the ninth or tenth centuries, is unique; although some antecedent traditions can be identified, the bizarre congeries of leaves, limbs, and scales evoked in the medium of paint at Nishapur is without any immediate parallel in Islamic art. The absence of contemporary epigraphic or textual materials that might shed light upon the idiosyncratic imagery of the paintings compels one to fall back on analogical reasoning, which suggests that the paintings were invested with apotropaic or talismanic properties directly relevant to their strange appearance. Given the lack of any related contextual data, any attempt to analyze the paintings with respect to their proposed apotropaic imagery must necessarily be speculative. Nevertheless, even such a tentative approach to the paintings may be useful in highlighting aspects of the relation between materiality and representation relevant to the efficacious functioning of apotropaiac and talismanic imagery in general. In particular, the unusual conjunction of anthropomorphic, lithic, and vegetal imagery in the Nishapur paintings raises interesting questions about efficacy, ontology, and the apotropaic image, questions underlined by the metaquality of the Nishapur images as painted abstractions of natural forms and media. Continue reading …
A series of enigmatic ninth- or tenth-century wall paintings from Nishapur in eastern Iran seems to have been imbued with amuletic, apotropaic, or talismanic properties. Recapitulating while exaggerating some of the properties of marble, the paintings also include anthropomorphic and vegetal imagery. Their idiosyncratic iconography seems to highlight a tension between physis and technē that may be relevant to the ambiguous ontology of efficacious images in general.
FINBARR B. FLOOD is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. His publications include Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009), which was awarded the 2011 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He is currently completing a major book project, provisionally entitled Islam and Image: Polemics, Theology, and Modernity. Other projects include a collaborative project entitled Object Histories: Flotsam as Early Globalism, for which he and Professor Beate Fricke, of UC Berkeley, have just been awarded an ACLS Collaborative Grant.
by Tanja Klemm
The essay begins:
Marsilio Ficino’s De vita, published in 1489 in Florence, is exclusively dedicated to the physical well-being of the sensible living organism—or the corpus animatum, as it had been called since late medieval times. In the proem to the work, Ficino makes it clear that in De vita he writes not as a philosopher, theologian, or priest but as a doctor, a scholar of medicine—of medicina theorica and of medicina practica. And indeed, with its focus on the regimen of intellectuals, of litterati, all three books of the treatise are deeply rooted in contemporary medical knowledge. In this sense, in De vita everything revolves around human physiology, which in that period was understood as the doctrine of nature (physis) dedicated to the understanding of natural processes in living organisms and the constitution of life. In the third book, entitled De vita coelitus comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens) this physiology is amplified into a cosmological doctrine of life and living matter: throughout the text it is connected to astrology—to the macrocosm and to the living stars and planets. To modern eyes, Ficino in De vita coelitus comparanda leaves the realm of physiology and, contrary to his statement in the proem, enters philosophy—or better, natural philosophy. But in premodern times philosophy was part of the medical curriculum, and thus medicine and astrology were tightly linked.
In the following pages, I would like to focus on the fact that within this cosmological physiology De vita coelitus comparanda develops a consistent phenomenology of imagines efficaces (efficient images). One could also call these imagines “medical talismans,” because, according to Ficino, they act on the spirit, body, and soul of a person—as does medicine, prescribed in the right way. Further, they can absorb powers from the heavens— as can medicine. Thus, in De vita coelitus comparanda, both imagines and medicine are embedded in an astrological framework—and this makes them both talismanic.
Ficino however does not use the term “talisman” in his treatise. Instead, he speaks throughout of imagines (sometimes effigies) or figurae. Imagines, per Ficino, refer to artifacts “made out of metals or stones by astrologers,” that is, to three-dimensional artifacts produced by specialists. He also goes on to specify their production, this time with assistance by “ancients” like Ptolemy, Haly Abbas, Platonist thinkers, and the Egyptians. In order to be useful (utilis), he explains, imagines can be formed according to the planetary constellation or the “celestial aspect” (vultus coelestis) whose healing power one wishes to attract. Figurae, on the other hand, do not designate three-dimensional artifacts in Ficino’s terminology. They refer instead to the figures and signs incised in imagines.
And De vita coelitus comparanda goes even further: it tells us how the forces of imagines—with or without figurae—are connected to both the human organism and the realm of the heavens. Within this framework, it provides a model of perception based on embodiment, immanent embeddedness, and participation rather than on visuality and observation. It focuses on how imagines or medical talismans worked and how the efficacy of these artifacts was conceived, perceived, and experienced. It explains the belief that talismanic powers had to be mingled with the forces—the spiritūs and virtutes—of the human organism in order to be felt or to lead to any kind of psychophysical metamorphosis, be it the cure of disharmonies of the corporeal humors or the refinement of the corporeal spiritus required to perform intellectual work or to enhance the proper generative (that is, procreative) forces. In short, De vita coelitus comparanda gives us an idea about how efficient images were perceived in the Renaissance. It is this consistent historical phenomenology of efficacy that makes Ficino’s text so original. Continue reading …
In his medical treatise De vita (1498), Marsilio Ficino describes the force of medical talismans and their efficacy on humans against the background of a cosmological physiology. This article focuses on the question of how—according to Ficino—the powers of medical talismans were experienced by humans, by the living, sensible body (corpus animatum). Discussion of this question also leads to theoretical considerations about the efficacy of artifacts in the Renaissance.
TANJA KLEMM is an art historian currently working as research assistant at the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Cologne. She is the author of Bildphysiologie. Körper und Wahrnehmung in Mittelalter und Renaissance (2013) and co-editor of Sind alle Denker traurig? Fallstudien zum melancholischen Grund des Schöpferischen in Asien und Europa (2015). Currently she is preparing, with Stephanie Dieckvoss, a monographic issue for Kunstforum International on the formation of artists in a global perspective.