Badiou’s Paradox

Heideggerian Mathematics: Badiou’s Being and Event as Spiritual Pedagogy

by Ian Hunter

The essay begins:

This paper is an experiment in redescription and reinterpretation. It seeks to take a text that enunciates a Heideggerian metaphysics of the “event”—understood as an encounter in which a subject meets itself emerging from the “void”—and to treat this text itself as an event in a quite other sense: as an ordinary historical occurrence. I will thus be approaching Alain Badiou’s Being and Event historically, in terms of the publication of a written work, but of a highly particular kind. This is a work whose discursive structure programs a refined spiritual pedagogy, and whose composition and reception only make sense within the historical context of the elite academic-intellectual subculture in which this pedagogy operates.

If we consider that Badiou regards his text as a “metaontology” that enunciates the emergence of events and indeed of historical time itself from the domain of nonbeing, then to treat this work as a kind of writing that occurs wholly within a particular historical subculture will imbue our redescription with an indelibly polemical complexion. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this complexion arises from the choice of a particular intellectual-historical method, rather than from any normative contestation of the content of Badiou’s work. This method or stance treats even the most abstract objects of reflection as products of an open-ended array of historical intellectual arts: rhetorics of argument, formal and informal languages, mathematical calculi, “spiritual exercises,” pedagogical practices. As a result, even a mode of reflection that claims to apprehend its objects at their point of emergence from the “void” and the “unthought” will be described in terms of the contingent historical use of a particular array of such arts. These will be those arts through which a philosophical elite learns to fashion an illuminated self whom it imagines keeping watch at the threshold of the void for the emergence of things newly minted from nonbeing through their naming. It is the task of a certain kind of philosopher to fashion such a self. The task of the intellectual historian, however, is to describe the intellectual arts used in this “work of the self on the self,” and the historical circumstances and purposes governing their transmission and use. Continue reading …

This essay provides a historical redescription and reinterpretation of Alain Badiou’s major work, Being and Event. The work is approached historically, as a text that uses Heideggerian metaphysics to perform an allegorical exegesis of mathematical set theory and does so as a means of fashioning a supremacist spiritual pedagogy for a philosophical elite in the context of a national intellectual subculture.

IAN HUNTER is an emeritus professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia. He has published a number of studies on early modern philosophical, political, and juridical thought, most notably Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001). Professor Hunter has also published a series of papers on the history of “theory” in the humanities academy, including “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry 33 (2006), and, most recently, “Hayden White’s Philosophical History,” New Literary History 45 (2014).

Fireworks from the Archive

If you need a little respite from neighborhood shenanigans this weekend, consider these two flares from the Representations archive:

Michael Rogin’s “The Two Declarations of Independence”

and

“Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” by Huey Copeland

In the former, Michael Rogin asks “What is the bearing of our radicalized national culture on the color-blind innovation of individual rights?” Discussing the American Declaration of Independence in light of the affirmative action debates of the 1990s, Rogin traces the declaration’s legacy through race relations in both the old and the new Hollywoods.

Less well known than Rogin’s other writings on race and film, this short essay appeared in Representations‘ special issue “Race and Representation: Affirmative Action,” edited by Robert Post and Michael Rogin in 1996. The issue quickly went out of print, but is now back in circulation in pdf format.

MICHAEL ROGIN was the author of many books on race, culture, politics, and history, including Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and Independence Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay. He taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Huey Copeland’s 2011 essay “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” looks at contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s multiple engagements with the history of American slavery, particularly as evinced by his 1993 installation To Disembark. As Copeland shows, in casting himself as a runaway slave, Ligon points up the relationships between regimes of power, violence, and resistance that continue to produce black subjects as fugitives in life and in representation.

HUEY COPELAND is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America.

Artistic Relationships

Brushes, Burins, and Flesh: The Graphic Art of Karel van Mander’s Haarlem Academy

by Aaron Hyman

The essay begins:

With male bodies of deep brown-reds, and others of an eerie bluish cream, Cornelis van Haarlem’s enormous Fall of Lucifer pulses warm and cool at once, creating an energy more appropriate to a bacchanal than to a scene of damnation. The canvas’s surface is filled with naked men: a bare butt turns out to us in the foreground, knotty flesh is seen through gently parted thighs, scrotums punctuate splayed legs, and penises respond to the forces of gravity. Insects, traditional iconographic elements of northern European depictions of falls from grace, are here used to conceal genitals. Yet, ironically, the insects instead serve to fix our attention on male groins. The man standing at the left side of the canvas renders sexual innuendo explicit, as his outstretched hand leads the viewer’s eye toward two men in an overtly sexual position. Across the canvas, the strange foreshortening creates the illusion that the reclining nude in the foreground stares directly at the anus of the man who straddles his face. A penis and testicles appear to hang just inches from this reclining man’s nose.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

These are the figures of Karel van Mander’s so-called Haarlem Academy, a mysterious and posthumously applied term for an important group of artists who collaborated for a brief, but intense, period at the end of the sixteenth century. The figures in this painting instantiated a web of relationships between the members of this “academy”: the painter Cornelis van Haarlem, the engraver Hendrick Goltzius, the patron Jacob Rauwert, and the art theorist Karel van Mander. These men—a theorist and chronicler of art and his closest colleagues—quite literally defined the northern European canon as it was taking form at the end of the sixteenth century. In the year this painting was begun, 1588, the work and lives of these four men were profoundly interconnected, entwined with the sprawling, muscular, nude men of their art. It was the same year in which Cornelis painted a second, highly disturbing work—Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (The National Gallery, London)—one that is equally important to exploring the relationships of this group. In Karel van Mander’s renowned artistic treatise, Het Schilder-Boeck, these two canvases are signaled as the high point of Cornelis’s early career; Goltzius made reproductive prints after them; and Rauwert, to whom a print of the Cadmus piece was dedicated, owned both. These works acted as nodes through and around which relationships between these men were formed and conceptualized.

Probing these works and the collaborative working conditions that brought them into being, this essay explores how making art in the early modern period could create a representational space in which relationships could develop and be worked through. With its distinctive treatment of naked male bodies, The Fall of Lucifer points toward a homoerotic dimension of the Haarlem Academy and of this type of collaborative milieu of making in the period more generally. This essay does not pursue a claim—and, indeed, dispenses with the expectation—that the painting evidences (or even could evidence) homoerotic encounters that took place between these men in Haarlem, in the world. Such an interpretive tack has become standard in an early modern art history seeking to give voice to the makers and users of art from within a silenced space of the homoerotic—or homosexual, as is often claimed post hoc for the early modern. Art historians have often proceeded from the belief, explicit or not, that art has the potential to present homosexuality, the desires or sexual practices of makers that become represented in the work of art and that might be confirmed by dint of historical documentation to verify such a reading. The charge made during the social turn out of which much of this now-canonical literature on homoerotism in the early modern period emerged was to give the picture a weight equal to that of the written word in documenting personal (erotic) experience. But if the artwork might offer the art historian initial insight into social dynamics, it is nevertheless inscribed as the historical and methodological endpoint: practices existed, they were documented, and the work of art represents them. The stake in choosing how to treat the work of art is therefore nothing less than the relationship between representation and history. Continue reading …

This essay examines the erotic works produced collaboratively by members of Karel van Mander’s so-called “Haarlem Academy” to suggest that early modern art making created a space in which slippages could occur between homosocial relationships and homoerotic practices. Hierarchical power relations inherent to collaboration, and to early-modern precursors to formalized academies, facilitated these dynamics because they structurally replicated essential conditions of homoerotic relationships. In turn, the piece proposes ways in which formal readings of works coupled with the interrogation of collaborative artistic production can help explore how works of art do more than index homoerotic relationships and, instead, instantiate them.

AARON M. HYMAN is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (2015–17) and Mellon fellow in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School (University of Virginia). His research has also been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Belgian American Educational Foundation, and the Jacob K. Javits fellowship.

Neoliberalism in Translation

Kokoro Confidential: Edwin McClellan, Friedrich Hayek, and the Neoliberal Reading of Natsume Sōseki

The essay begins:

In a 1962 letter to the conservative Relm Foundation, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) discussed plans for disseminating his brand of neoliberalism in Japan. Hayek would win the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, and by then he had long since established himself as one of the most influential neoliberal thinkers of the Cold War years. In the letter, he discussed a “deliberate campaign” that would bring “libertarian scholars” to Japan, and that would culminate in a Tokyo meeting of the neoliberal network he led, the Mont Pèlerin Society. Hayek emphasized that “there seems now to be a receptive atmosphere for libertarian ideas in Japan, and if this is true the effects of some well directed efforts may be of crucial importance with this volatile people.” Hoping to capitalize on this “receptive atmosphere,” he also arranged for his recent book, The Constitution of Liberty (1960), to be translated into Japanese by Paul Nishiyama, one of his graduate advisees on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Hayek would visit Japan four times between 1964 and 1971, and he once wrote that these were “immensely enjoyable” visits that had led his wife to “[take] up the study of Japanese.”

Today, Hayek’s ideas are part of larger dialogues in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere about the culture and politics of neoliberalism. These discussions have only become more urgent in the years since the global economic collapse of 2008. In particular, the question of whether neoliberal reason is the cause or the cure of our current economic and social strife has recently attracted the attention of scholars in fields ranging from political science and economics to history and anthropology. This essay aims to contribute to these discussions by thinking through the cultural dynamics of neoliberal reason from the perspective of modern Japanese literature.

1446182My analysis is premised on a concrete connection between the seemingly disparate fields of modern Japanese literature and Hayekian neoliberalism: In 1957, the most famous novel of modern Japan, Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), was translated into English by Edwin McClellan (1925–2009), who was at the time one of Hayek’s advisees on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. McClellan was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Scottish father, and he counted both Japanese and English as native languages. The novel he translated while working with Hayek, Kokoro, is a literary masterpiece that centers on the relationship between an alienated university student and an older man, known only as “Sensei” (my teacher), who shares his thoughts on the loneliness of the modern world with the student before committing suicide just after the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912.

McClellan’s translation of Kokoro deeply moved Hayek. In fact, McClellan’s literary rendering of Sōseki’s poetic prose so powerfully affected Hayek that he later hired McClellan to polish the language of his own writings, including such classics of neoliberal thought as The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty (3 volumes; published in 1973, 1976, and 1979). While moonlighting as an editor (of sorts) for Hayek, McClellan was better known as an influential professor of Japanese literature at Chicago and, later, Yale. During this time, his translation of Kokoro was probably the most widely assigned novel in courses on modern Japan taught in America. The prominence of the translation, though, can make us forget that it was actually undertaken at a time when the field of Japan studies in American academe did not yet exist, and by a graduate student who was trained by scholars who knew almost nothing about Japan.

In the 1950s, after all, McClellan was studying with social scientists, philosophers, and economists affiliated with the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago—not Japanologists. In a 1956 letter of recommendation, in fact, Hayek described McClellan as a political scientist: “[McClellan] is an unusually cultivated man of wide interests and is now employing his good background in economic and political science for a study of certain very important intellectual trends in Japan—an aspect of the influence of Western ideas on the political developments in that country.” McClellan’s translation of Kokoro would go on to become standard reading for generations of students interested in modern Japan, but the point of departure for my own analysis is that it was originally composed and received within the context of a nascent neoliberal movement led by his advisor, Hayek.

This essay focuses on the possibility that intellectuals in 1950s America who knew little about Japan may have found in McClellan’s translation of Kokoro a literary rendering of the neoliberal sensibilities that they were then conceptualizing in expository texts of their own. I begin by examining McClellan’s contacts at Chicago in the 1950s and limn his position within a circle of neoliberal thinkers who became the first readers of his Kokoro translation. I then read the translation itself in the context of the neoliberal conviction that “great books” and other expressions of bourgeois culture reveal the universality of the human condition. I pay particular attention to how the translation might have engaged the antihistoricst sensibilities of McClellan’s Chicago contacts in passages where he scrubbed Sōseki’s language of its cultural specificity, and in passages where the formal qualities of the narrative itself distribute readerly sensibility in the direction of a timeless humanism beyond the boundaries of cultural and historical particularity. These analyses lead me to conclude that McClellan’s translation supplied a way of feeling the ambience and atmosphere of neoliberal reason without ever invoking the sign of “neoliberalism” per se. For in moments when Sōseki’s translated prose led readers to forget the name of the neoliberal ideas that it allowed them to feel, the aesthetic atmosphere of McClellan’s Kokoro itself became, as it were, all the names of neoliberalismContinue reading …

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s, Edwin McClellan (1925–2009) translated into English the most famous novel of modern Japan, Kokoro (1914), by Natsume Sōseki. This essay tells the story of how the translation emerged from and appealed to a nascent neoliberal movement that was led by Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), the Austrian economist who had been McClellan’s dissertation advisor.

BRIAN HURLEY will be joining the faculty of Syracuse University in the fall as an Assistant Professor of Japanese literature, film, and culture. His research has also appeared in the Journal of Japanese Studies and in the Japanese-language journal of literary criticism Bungaku. He is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the confluences of literature and thought in modern Japan.

The Logic of Forgiveness

Why Forgive Carlyle?

by Elisa Tamarkin

The essay begins:

Picture_of_Thomas_CarlyleIf, for Henry David Thoreau, “hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance,” then no one was more hospitable than Thomas Carlyle; after all, Carlyle’s ability to keep his friends at a distance was no less than his ability to keep them. Nothing Americans might think, after the publication of his Latter-Day Pamphlets in 1850, could heal over the wound they felt straightaway that Carlyle “mocked the admiration” he lived to gain and that, for all the gratitude he had toward us, he also, says Henry James Sr., “hated us.” There may have been “an inexplicable rapport,” writes Walt Whitman, between himself and Carlyle, but, judging by Carlyle’s anti-egalitarianism, bigotry, and scorn of democracy, Whitman was “certainly at a loss to account for it.” Who could excuse, and in any case who could deny, the harmful effect of Carlyle’s contempt for abolitionism, suffrage, and social reform? He “stands for slavery,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes; he “goes for murder, money, capital punishment” and is as “dangerous as a madman. Nobody knows what he will say next or whom he will strike.” Apparently, vegetarianism bothered him. If you praised republics, he liked Russian czars. If you urged free trade, he remembered he was a monopolist. “Cease to brag to me,” says Carlyle, “of America and its model of institutions and constitutions…. They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores.” The press describes his work “On Heroes”—his attempt to substitute a new “hero-archy” for lost hierarchies in society and government—as a recipe for “unadulterated despotism” and “more especially how to catch masses of people and indoctrinate them with the feeling of obedience.” When we read his essay “Dr. Francia,” an apology for the supreme dictator of Paraguay, it is not hard to see why, by the 1930s, Carlyle’s theory of the hero seemed compatible with German fascism or that essays from that time, including “Carlyle Rules the Reich,” suggest that Hitler’s own belief in his “fulfillment of duty” to the majorities could “be expressed in familiar old phrases from Carlyle.” In 1945, when Joseph Goebbels tried to dispel Hitler’s sense of defeat, he read to him from Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great–Hitler’s favorite book.

Never was “there a publication so provocative of rage, hatred and personal malevolence,” writes one newspaper of the Latter-Day Pamphlets, though the essays were only Carlyle’s most intemperate attacks on philanthropy and democracy. The effect of his intolerance was “convulsive,” so even if Carlyle exaggerated when he said the pamphlets “turned nine tenths of the world dreadfully” against him, it remains true that even his “old admirers drew back.” His estrangement from John Stuart Mill, for example, dates from this time. And while Carlyle’s violence or “scoffing vituperation” might strike us “more with the rhetoric than with the matter,” so that it might not mean what it is, and while “of course,” as Henry James says, “he has a perfect right to be what he is,” does it ever help us justify or make tolerable the critical confusion of Carlyle’s demand to Emerson over the course of two decades, or else to Mill in 1852, “Oh my friend, have tolerance for me, have sympathy with me”? On the publication of Carlyle’s essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” (1849), his willful apology for slavery, Mill writes, “I hardly know of an act by which one person could have done so much mischief as this may possibly do.” But it takes courage to answer mischief with friendship, and Carlyle found Mill “thin.” “Who cares that he wrote the ‘Nigger Question’,” writes Walt Whitman, since “there has been an impalpable something [for me], more effective than the palpable.” “About Anti-Slavery,” writes the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Carlyle “is unbearable, and about every philanthropic effort. He scoffs with cruel glee at all abolitionists, and all blacks…. Though all this is true, and though it is true that he is not amiable… it is also true, though one can hardly believe it, that he is the most lovable soul you can meet. His sayings against Anti-Slavery are of no consequence.”

Why forgive Carlyle? Continue reading …

This essay discusses the troubled relationships, both intellectual and intimate, of nineteenth-century essayist Thomas Carlyle to understand why Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries decide to forgive him, while despising his ideas. Coming to terms with the intensity of their affection was also to admit that their forgiveness was inappropriate to their principles and beliefs. Thinking through forgiveness as a kind of convexity, or dispersal of focus, the essay asks what it means to object, but love anyway, and what the challenge of forgiving Carlyle says about the logic, and the relevance, of their critical judgments.

ELISA TAMARKIN is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America (Chicago, 2008). She is completing a book on ideas of relevance and irrelevance since 1800.

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

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).

Enigma at Nishapur

Animal, Vegetal, and Mineral: Ambiguity and Efficacy in the Nishapur Wall Paintings

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.

Renaissance Aesthetics and Medical Talismans

Life from Within: Physiology and Talismanic Efficacy in Marsilio Ficino’s De vita (1498)

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.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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.

Dragon Theory

Symmetry, Sympathy, and Sensation: Talismanic Efficacy and Slippery Iconographies in Early Thirteenth-Century Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia

By Persis Berlekamp

The essay begins:

In the early thirteenth century, the Islamic lands were theoretically united under the authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, but in practice the caliphate was weak, and princes in various regions, including several as close to Baghdad as northern Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia, operated with de facto autonomy. While the caliph paid special attention to the protection of Baghdad, other princes assumed responsibility for protecting the civic and commercial institutions under their control. Among these rulers were the Ayyubids in Syria, the Seljuks in much of Anatolia, the Zangids and their Atabegs in Mosul, and the Arturqids in the region at the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known in the medieval period as the “Jazira.” Campaigns to build or fortify citadels, city walls, and secure stopping places for traveling merchants, or to protect the congregational mosques that were the central institutions of civic life, were part of this endeavor. From Iraq to Anatolia, walls and doors provided protection not only through their physical effectiveness as barriers but also through their talismanic qualities, which derived from the various and combined powers vested in inscriptions, antiquities, materials such as stone and bronze, and the iconographies of specific forms. Multiple theories that circulated at the time, and that I will refer to as theories of symmetry, sympathy, and sensation, suggested different explanations or models of why these qualities, separately or in combination, might have effective protective power. In other words, they offered multiple models of talismanic efficacy.

This article considers the slippery relevance of iconography to some of these models. Among the various iconographic forms that seem to have had talismanic significance, those with dragons and lions positioned near each other provide a starting point. As several of the structures these apotropaia enhanced are no longer extant, the degree to which they can be considered in their initial architectural context varies, but it does seem clear that lions and dragons were often positioned near each other like guards on the walls and gates of cities and citadels, and at the entrances of mosques and caravansarays. It is widely accepted that medieval Islamic dragons, particularly those with knotted bodies, played an apotropaic role. Likewise, the use of lion guardians in the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of the region is well known, and the resonance of that tradition in medieval Islamic memory is recognized. It has been noted that dragons and felines often appear together in this period, and that they have heraldic or royal significance. However, the early thirteenth-century cultural habit of combining the talismanic powers of the two beasts to protect cities and civic institutions has not been examined as such. Neither has there been very much consideration of why and how various viewers might have expected them to effectively serve a protective function. Continue reading

Talismans drawing on the combined iconographies of lions and dragons proliferated on the walls and doors of cities and civic institutions in early thirteenth-century Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia. This article examines them in light of three different medieval theoretical models, seeking to shed light on why intelligent people in their original milieus might have expected such talismans to have protective power.

PERSIS BERLEKAMP is Associate Professor of Art History and the College at the University of Chicago, where she teaches a range of topics in the history of Islamic art and architecture She is the author of Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam and is currently writing a book on Islamic talismans.

Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

Image, Object, Art: Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

by Gerhard Wolf

from the special issue Images at Work, Representations 133

Through “conversation” with a more than four thousand-year-old Chinese vessel, this essay engages with some of the fundamental principles of the discipline of art history espoused in recent decades. In particular, it situates Bildwissenschaft and thing theory and the material turn within ongoing debates on art and artifacts and delineates a more fluid approach to the study of image, object, art (Bild, Ding, Kunst).

The essay begins:

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

It is hard to say why I stopped in front of you so much longer than before your neighbors, while walking through the collection of Chinese ceramics at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich recently. Is it because the base of your body has the somewhat simplified shape of two human feet? They carry a smoothly protruding “belly,” which contracts upwards into a neck that widens, in turn, into a collar, the whole (some 25 cm high) formed in brownish clay, with vertical scratched lines ornamenting the body and a kind of rhythmic incision at the upper circular edges that defines the border between inside and outside. Perhaps there are some remains of color, but I am not sure about this. If there were no vitrine separating us, one could handle you, have a closer look, and, while talking to you, perhaps my voice would resonate through the cavity of your “belly.” Must speak with your curator. The label reveals that your exact provenance (Gansu or Qinghai, Qijia culture?) is as uncertain as the date of your production, which is roughly the second millennium BCE. No way to write your biography, to know about your dwelling in the nearly four thousand years of your existence; most probably you were excavated in the twentieth century and sold by an art dealer to a collector, who loaned you on a permanent basis to the museum. I am intrigued by your feet, not because they give you an anthropomorphic dimension; to my eyes, it rather works the other way round, in the sense of giving feet to a thing: in fact, I would not describe your overall body in either human or animal terms, even if I have already used such terminology for reasons of convenience and convention. There is an owl-shaped jug on your left side, and it is quite different. Your feet remind me of Bertrand Russell’s rather rhetorical question concerning how we can know that things do not disappear once we turn our back to them. I read this early in life, a time when one sometimes wonders if the tables and chairs might not walk away only to return the next morning. Well, in your “case” you would need to escape from the glass that enshrines you, a container in a container, and your steps would be short and shuffling. Even if you do not do this, your (relatively small) feet on the one hand indicate a polarity of stability and potential movement, and on the other they give your self-sufficient thingness a directionality resulting in a front, profile, and back view, thus “orienting” you in space. One cannot avoid considering them when one wants to “place” you somewhere. The feet thus have an effect similar to a handle; however, they don’t seem to be attached to you, as handles often are (as animals climbing up a vessel or hanging on its side, for example). I imagine that your feet are hollow inside, taking part in shaping the volume that the layer of clay circumscribes, becoming the jar you are, to be filled with wine or water or another liquid.

I wonder if you may be called a kind of Heideggerian thing, and what this would mean. Heidegger is concerned not with the shape or making of jars and jugs, but rather with the jugness of jugs and the thingness of things; this self-referential nature of things (as predicates of themselves) he strongly distinguishes from the “objecthood” of “objects”: the “thingness” of “things.” He mentions the handle and spout once en passant, and insists on the German verb schenken in the double sense of “pour” and “give.” However, he doesn’t work out the resulting directionality intrinsic to the dynamics of such a potential flow; he rather privileges the gathering in roundness, the thing as a ring. He may not have liked your feet either, insofar as they suggest the object standing in front of me (as Gegenstand = object), or he would not have cared about them at all. But I do, for what fascinates me about you, as my remarks suggest, is this hybrid but “unified” combination of a part of the human body with a body that does not represent a living being, animal or human, iconizing with these parts a function proper to them, for which they “stand,” and that vessel and human body share—the function, in fact, of standing, emphasizing further the nonhuman nature of your overall shape. As a historian I cannot be content with my own intuitive approach or bodily experience; I must ask what images and concepts of living bodies were current at the time of your production. A quick look around that rich collection does not offer me clear hints. As for the elegant tripods next to you, they look to me like communicating organs, standing on three points and thus easily set on a fireplace. There are Chinese ceremonial bronze food vessels, called Ding from the second millennium onwards, very rarely decorated with a human face; they usually carried dragon ornaments. Heidegger may have liked them, for they apparently correspond more to his concept of Vierung, the fourfold gathering of heaven and earth, mortals and immortals, than you do, an “innocent” jar standing in your vitrine on your feet, so to speak. Even if I like the originality of your shape, I won’t call you a work of art, but rather an artifact. However, this is not my major concern. Over the last years, I have named my research department at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence “Image, Object, Art,” or in German Bild, Ding, Kunst, not because I think these terms form an inextricably fatal triangle, but rather because they can open to a rich semantic field, in a variety of constellations: as a triangle within a complex system of lines, as overlapping circles or pluri-dimensionally entangled universes. I understand “image,” “object,” and “art” as cumulative terms in a nonessentialist way, for example, embracing image and picture, object and thing, art and aesthetics. My interest is precisely to experiment with them in working out open conceptual tools for descriptive as well as analytical purposes as a way of reworking and refining the research process itself. In this way, you might be addressed as an artifact with an iconic aspect, meaning that your objecthood, if not thingness (despite Heidegger, I do not see a need for a sharp differentiation here), can be understood in aesthetic as well as anthropological categories. In fact, more generally, the techniques, practices, and aesthetics of containment are among the elementary interactions of humans and the environment, in the form of interference in, or interruption of, “flux” and other natural processes. This can happen by means of gathering and collecting; by transport, storage, and conservation of liquids or solids. Containment is thus one of the major conditions of the existence of “things”: containers or vessels are not only things in themselves; they can guarantee a relative stability of their content over time and space as well. Yet they can also be the site of metamorphoses or transubstantiation, as in the case of cooking pots. Containers can be understood as shells, constituting an inside and an outside. There is an aesthetics and poetics of containment in relation to function, transcultural agency, and biographies of objects, as well as the (not only) aesthetic practices that surround them: tea rituals, symposia or other rites of communality, pouring and drinking in religious ceremonies, measuring liquids and solids, the display and handling of drugs, packing suitcases, opening carton boxes in the archive, unloading ships, cooking pasta, or playing a violin. For the world of vessels and boxes is multisensorial, beyond the visual it involves touch, smell, taste, and, last but not least, acoustics: one thinks of musical instruments, often enshrining a volume that is essential for their production of sound, or beyond that, of the sheltering of objects by means of cases, often lined with textiles. According to Aristotle, a place (topos) is a sort of perfectly tight case enshrining or encapsulating things.

Turning to the three terms “image,” “object,” and “art,” I see the danger of fetishizing them or, rather, of following certain traditions and current practices of doing so. If art in the narrow sense of the European tradition is set as an absolute, universalist category, “image” and “thing” are easily drawn into the game, which then tends to become a fatal triangulation. My suggestion, however, is not to renounce speaking about “art” (a term with a kind of global success), but rather to try to free it from the connotations of the early modern “system” as it was established in Europe, to abandon the traditional hierarchies of artwork and artifact and to rediscover the notion of aesthetics as an open category well suited for transcultural research. If I see it correctly, there is at present a tendency toward just this in various parts of the world. Continue reading …

GERHARD WOLF is Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His current research topics are Mediterranean and global art histories, sacred topographies in an interreligious perspective, theories of the image in religion and art, and the interrelations between artistic and scientific worldviews. His many 2015 publications include Littoral and Liminal Spaces: The Early Modern Mediterranean and Beyond (co-edited with Hannah Baader), Bild, Ding, Kunst (co-edited with Kathrin Müller), and Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (co-edited with Alessandra Russo and Diana Fane).