A Little Bit False and a Little Bit True: Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas

By Isaac Kaplan

There is no such thing as the finality of the past. It cannot be boxed up, put on a shelf, and studied by curious historians who somehow operate outside of it. I don’t think Aby Warburg understood this when he began to study Hopi Native Americans, an endeavour he would later credit with providing him invaluable knowledge about the European Renaissance and Ancient Greece. I think that before his interactions with the Hopi, Warburg was a man, sickly and made bored by Civilisation, travelling at the turn of the 19th century through the American West to territory that had yet to be terraformed by telegraph wires. I think he still believed that the academic tools provided to him by ‘progress’ would afford him the ability to discover history, the way one discovers a fossil or a missing set of keys. He was young.

There can be no doubt, however, that by the time he completed his tour of the United States he was keenly aware that history, as perceived by the minds of humans, is uncertain. A photograph taken of him after his journey shows an aged man, a lethargic sadness in his posture as he reads a dense, dusty book that may as well be a stand-in for all the exhaustive academic studies that reside in libraries like barely visited tombstones, bearing the names of unremembered scholars. The photograph shows his hand on his temple, eyes closed as if suffering the headache of history. One feels his pain. For after his voyage across America, Warburg became a man who thought of history as prefaced by the opening lines of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s treatise on Marcel Duchamp: “I don’t say that what follows is all false, nor that it’s all true, nor that it’s neither false nor true nor both-true-and-false, nor a bit false and a bit true.”

In the Hopi practices, Warburg found symbology that informed Renaissance painters although none had set foot in a country they did not really know to exist. His discovery was not made with the acerbic scientific ‘objectivity’ that characterises the Enlightenment study of history but rather through lived experience with the Hopi. That the symbolism and relationship to mythology of two historically isolated civilisations was shockingly similar, to the point of being analogous, demanded a new system of history. A history that, if recorded, would fold upon itself. Not a history pretending to tell a story of what was but rather a history constellated as a system of directions showing the way to what might have been whilst also changing, moving, and incorporating the events of the future. This history could not be bound in a book, only liberated by an atlas: Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. A work of shifting pictures, texts, images, fragments of history and society, displayed and juxtaposed on boards in Warburg’s study. Each day Warburg moved and changed the Mnemosyne Atlas. The day he died, Warburg had yet to rearrange the shifting anachronisms, prompting some to claim that he had left the work unfinished, as though the Atlas could achieve finality while time still ticked.

Warburg’s project juxtaposed more than its contents, for the very name reveals a temporal dichotomy. The first part, Mnemosyne, is the physical embodiment of memory in Greek Mythology. An atlas, conversely, does not record the past but allows for navigation toward some future position. One might imagine this is what Kaja Silverman speaks of when she describes a history that will “come to us from the future”. So what are the contents of the Mnemosyne Atlas? At least partly, they are a future memory. Or rather, a memory that is built to allow for the future. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to invoke Walter Benjamin’s messianic conception of history according to which the future is not “homogeneous, empty time” but a “strait gate” through which the Messiah might appear. We might think of the Messiah as the terminus of the future, and thus the terminus of the Mnemosyne Atlas. This is because if history were to end, it would be possible to include every single thing in the Atlas. There would be no further future positions for the Atlas to suggest. In other words, history and Benjamin’s conception of what the ‘Angelus Novus’[1] sees as history (namely, as occurring all at once) would be the same. Indeed, it is this conceptual ‘Angelus Novus’ that, being able to see time simultaneously, has access to the complete Mnemosyne Atlas while humans are left with the “pile of debris” called “progress”.

The Mnemosyne Atlas is an incredibly levelling conception of history, one where linearity is more or less irrelevant and the past, the present and to a certain extent the future are deeply linked. Both Marxism and contemporary Capitalism share an ideological dependence on ‘progress’. The ideology behind the Mnemosyne Atlas is not nearly as picky. It absorbs everything and places it together simultaneously. It is an ever-shifting conception of history that Silverman credits as “being the only way that we can be open to the world”. One cannot look at the Mnemosyne Atlas and find enough distance between oneself and the past in order to create a concept of ‘progress’ or a historical ‘Other’ to vilify.

This is partly because without real boarders or a fixed form, the Atlas is both the chronicle and a part of that which it chronicles. Derrida would be hard pressed to find a better example of a work that so forcefully smashes the parergon/ergon binary: the division between the frame and the work of art, a divide that shifts depending on where one’s approach is rooted. The Atlas is framed only by history, which it also is. It contains/embodies a deep historical melancholy. Both the melancholy of never being finishable (baring the end of history) but also the inescapable sadness of holding the horrors of the past in the present.

The results of this somewhat psychoanalytic conception of history apply to more than just trauma. In Warburg’s estimation, Hopi Native Americans’ treatment of symbols has anachronistic connections to the Renaissance. How can this be? Evidence restrains it. Categorisation forbids it. Chronology denies it. And yet, it is. Where Levi-Strauss found a commonality of myths among diverse groups and attempted to find universal laws that govern human thought, Warburg saw analogous methods of thinking, creation and perception between historically isolated consciousnesses. Paul Valery provides the justification for this: “Hercules had no more muscles than we have, but only bigger ones […] there is no difference in the structure of our machines; I correspond to him bone by bone, fibre by fibre, act by act; and our likeness enables me to imagine his labours.” But let’s reverse Valery’s contention. Not only does structural likeness enable the ability to imagine connections, it also denies the ability to calcify distance, to compartmentalise the past. The Atlas is configured around this imagination and denial .

Warburg does not ask for the same factual validation that Enlightenment history necessitates. Rather, he provides an understanding of history that rightfully undermines a linear narrative. Violent ideologies, specifically fascism, benefit from the notion of ‘progress’ because it allows them to be treated, in the words of Benjamin, as the “historical norm” without protest. More importantly, ‘progress’ allows for the object of violence to be made into an ‘Other’ by creating space between the perpetrator and the victim. When time is condensed, juxtaposed and layered, the distance vanishes and the ‘Other’ cannot be engendered. This is not to say violence did not occur before the Enlightenment but rather that Enlightenment thought forges the distance necessary for violence through ‘objective’ study and then veils it by designating its methodology the only way to a singular truth. A flat, shifting conception of time both precludes future acts of aggression but also forces us to come to terms with past acts. In the Atlas we see humanity in the horror, and horror in our humanity.

One can approach Warburg with cynicism. It is easy to argue that he simply took a holiday to the West and pretended to understand Hopi culture. But such a charge reveals more about the person saying it than of Warburg’s actual interactions. The historian who attempts to learn every minute detail of the Hopi, who believes there is a ‘fact’ to unearth that they might then ‘know’ and weave into a narrative is coercing history much more than Warburg. Today, those who might be termed ‘Technical Art Historians’, those who use science to learn about the technical ‘facts’ of an object, are engaging in violence, in coercion. This does not invalidate their conclusions, but we must be weary of the connotations of their methodology.

It is interesting that Warburg was criticised for using loaded language (“primitive” for example) since those doing the criticising fail to see the loop in their logic. That is, how can one critique Warburg for utilising a language so bound to a time and place when he is attempting to liberate himself from being stuck in a moment of intellectual thought? It is an attempt to wrestle Warburg into a space where he might be criticised, but it is not a space he wants to be in. It is our vocabulary, rather than Warburg, that is at fault here because it demands a strict, non-oscillating dichotomy between concepts like ‘subject’ and ‘object’ where the ‘subject’ might eventually come to know the ‘object’. In this way, Enlightenment thought is sometimes captured by a funny Narcissian logic. Remember that Narcissus, when he first saw his reflection in the lake, believed he was seeing someone else with whom he instantly fell in love. The scientist is vulnerable to the same trap. He looks into the pool, hypnotised by the face looking back, desiring to study it into oblivion, to understand its every curve, to dominate it, unable to realise that the ‘object’ of his gaze is actually himself. For this reason, we must imagine ourselves within the Mnemosyne Atlas even as we endeavour to study it.

[1] 1920 mono-print by Paul Klee depicting an angelic figure that was later conceptualised by Benjamin as the “angel of history”.

4 Responses to “A Little Bit False and a Little Bit True: Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas”
  1. fry says:

    in benjamin’s theses ‘on the concept of history’, it is the storm blowing from paradise, which is called ‘progress’, not the ‘pile of debris’

    • Isaac says:

      Right! Sorry I suppose I should have been a bit more clear. I interpreted the storm from paradise and the pile of debris as being linked and I suppose, and this is certainly easily something debatable, as causational. Didn’t make that clear in my essay, however.

      • fry says:

        sorry that was a v. late night comment, didn’t mean it 2 sound so blunt!
        i guess my point would be that the privilege (however melancholy) of the angel of history is that it is facing backwards towards the past. the whole point of the myth of progress is that those who fall under its spell, are facing forwards and cannot see the pile of debris accruing behind them. for benjamin, the moments of the past are always at danger of losing their cite-ability (thus why the historical materialist has to seize them when they flash up at a moment of danger). The risk of the a-historicising of Valery you include is that it implies that the fragments of the past can always be cited, and they just have to be found, whereas for benjamin they flash up in a certain now-time of recognizability. this was his critique of jung, who also posited universal symbols that are somehow biologically stored in humanity.

  2. ds says:

    very much a topic of concern in evolutionary biology, where the notion of progress (i.e. Us at the top of evolutionary chain – hah!!) is hard to resist.

    Stephen Jay Gould is most noted for resisting this irresistible idea, but darwin had his own reservations:
    ‘The belief in progress is at the heart of the modern Western worldview, so it is not surprising that it finds its way into theories of natural history. Darwin developed his theory during what was perhaps the height of progressivist thinking, the Victorian era, and, ever since, his theory has been widely interpreted as suggesting that organisms improve over the course of evolutionary history. Gould worked to counter the long-established view, dating back to before Darwin, that evolution was directional and progressive. As discussed above, Darwin himself, although much more sophisticated and nuanced in his thinking than many of his subsequent acolytes, argued that there should be some degree of progress in evolution, at least with regard to adaptation to the local environment. But he was skeptical of such claims in regard to historical progress, as indicated in his correspondence with U.S. paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt, who contended that there was necessary progress. Darwin, in some degree of contradiction with the passage quoted above from the Origin, in a letter dated December 4, 1872, wrote, “After long reflection I cannot avoid the conclusion that no inherent tendency to progressive development exists.”13 Nonetheless, the progressive view became central to the modern synthesis. Gould points out:
    Progress is not merely a deep cultural bias of Western thought…it is also…the explicit expectation of all deterministic theories of evolutionary mechanism that have ever achieved any popularity, from Darwinian selection to Lamarckism to orthogenesis. I do not, of course, mean progress as an unreversed, unilinear march up the chain of being; Darwin did away with this silly notion forever. But even Darwinism anticipates that an imperfect, irregular, but general ascent should emerge from all the backing and forthing inherent in a theory based on a principle of local adaption to changing circumstances.

    (nice ‘Thing’ by the way, Isaac:)

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