Sensing—Feeling—Imitating. Psycho-Mimeses in Aby Warburg
abstract The article attempts a systematic reconstruction of Aby Warburg’s fragmentary theory of imitation, paying particular attention to Warburg’s so far unpublished notes on a science of expression (Ausdruckskunde). Warburg conceptualizes mimesis as a psychological process in which perceptual and emotional factors interrelate with affective feedback generated through the activity of symbolization and image-formation. This concept is shown to be strongly influenced by empathy aesthetics (Einfühlungsästhetik), most importantly Robert Vischer’s 1872 treatise Das optische Formgefühl (‘The Optical Feeling of Form’). The article further describes a number of effects which Warburg attributes to these psycho-mimetic processes: the specific feeling-quality that results from a psycho-perceptual assessment of the degree of (dis)similarity between the gestalt of the perceiving body and the gestalt of the body perceived; the anthropomorphizing, projective function of positing causality in the realm of perception; and a concomitant effect of psychological distancing that Warburg equates with a calming of the emotions. The text also sketches the temporal and structural differences that distinguish Warburg’s understanding of mimesis from the doctrine of imitation offered by one of its important predecessors, namely classical aesthetics (Winckelmann).
keywords Aby Warburg, Einfühlungsästhetik, Nachbewegungen, Psycho-Mimesis, Robert Vischer
The concept of mimesis (Nachahmung
) recurs throughout almost the entire temporal and thematic span of Aby Warburg’s work. This is not to say that Warburg ever developed a systematic account of mimesis as such, and not even of the role which mimesis specifically plays in the production, reception, and general cultural functioning of images – themes central to his Kultur
- and Bildwissenschaft
, as well as to his art historical studies. The absence of such a systematic analysis, or even a concise and reliable definition, is hardly surprising, since Warburg was anything but a builder of systematically organized theoretical or scientific edifices. Yet, the insistence with which the topic returns in his writings demonstrates at least a systematic interest on Warburg’s part and allows his readers to formulate a few organizing observations. The present contribution offers a cross-section of a number of Warburg’s works, reaching from his early Grundlegende Bruchstücke zu einer pragmatischen Ausdruckskunde
and a few of his art historical studies, to comparatively late texts such as the lecture on the snake ritual of the Hopi tribes and the introduction to the Mnemosyne-Atlas
, a thematically organized inventory of transhistorically recurring figural patterns – bodies caught in movement and gesticulation – in the visual arts from Greek antiquity to Warburg’s present.