Aby Warburg and the Orbits of Research

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In 1609 Johannes Kepler discovered in the sky the active geometry of the ellipse, transforming the closed and static geometry of the circle into the elliptic orbit of mobile centers and magnetic empathies. Aby Warburg recognized in Kepler’s eccentric ellipse a figure for the generative space of a new thinking. Within an actively configured field of art history Warburg charted intermediary relationships, divergent couplings of imagination and reason, desiring continuities and transformations in the life of images. The ellipse was Warburgs “thinking space,” figure for an always transforming, fully implicated relationship to research. This fall we’ll explore Aby Warburg’s innovations in research methodology. What could research come to mean, as an open experiment in cognition and making? Much like “concept”, the word has ossified in our discourse and perhaps also in our practice. Here we’ll open to a compassionate scrutiny research’s potential techniques, histories, stances, projections, dreams, wagers, games and structures. Warburg, born in 1866, was an art historian by academic training, in an era when clear disciplinary boundaries had not yet achieved their vertical consolidation. What Warburg achieved between 1889, the year of his doctoral thesis publication in Strasbourg, and his death in Hamburg in 1929, was the sustained development of three intensively inter-related research practices: Art Historian, (The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity) Librarian, (the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, now the Warburg Institute in London) and Visual thinker (The Mnemosyne Atlas). I am differentiating these three practices for rhetorical clarity, when no such clear differentiation determined Warburg’s ways of working. He thought across and via the energetic recombination of these various modes of material and scholarly research and their manifestations. And it was the experience of passionate energy, of dynamic temporal, even transhistorical and transcultural synchronic agency, that ran as a fundamental gesture through the scholarly, the bibliophilic, and the image-based work, disturbing the proprieties of historical periodicity and chronology, indexical logic, and formal analysis alike. For Warburg, Mnemosyne, the play of memory, unfolded among the charged intervals of image, document and concept in errant suspension. Revival, the interpretive cliché of renaissance culture, was turned to its full, discontinuous and disruptive vitalism. Research was the living orbit of a charged relationship with History and image. We’ll let the radically heterodox thinker of Hamburg inflect and revivify what research could be now. Activities will include lectures, readings, collaborative presentations on the work of scholars shaped by the Warburg Library (including Giorgo Agamben, Frances Yates, Carlo Ginzberg, Erwin Panofsky, Georges Didi-Huberman), and individually determined research projects. Invited guests: Matthew Rana (Gothenburg) and Antonia Hirsch (Berlin). Also proposed: a film screening (Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie) and visits to local research institutes (Virtual Knowledge Studio, DRIFT: Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, Huizinga Instiute).