Sunday, 8 June 2008

Warwick/Warburg course 2008, Day Three...

Day One of the Early Modern Research Techniques course was easy to write about, as was Day Two: but Day Three? Tricky...

If I close my eyes, the single image from it burnt into my retinas is of Charles Hope sardonically half-warning participants about the historical Class A drug that is archival research. Yes, he personally had partaken of it, and indeed fully inhaled; yes, truth be told he'd actually quite enjoyed it, and even become quite good at it; but being realistic, the chances that you'll find anything surprising in any archives anywhere range from Slim Jim McThin to zero.

As to the other speakers, Charles Burnett was (as always) excellent value: I could happily listen to him all day. Ingrid de Smet was good, and... look, every lecturer was good, so that's not the problem at all.

I'll try to explain what's been bugging me for a month - and why. You see, about halfway through my Master's, a particular kind of critical faculty awoke in me that takes the form of an active intuition that (in effect) 'listens in'. And so I get a parallel commentary on the subtext of what I'm reading: not "do I believe this (y/n)?", but "to what degree am I comfortable accepting this account is psychologically representative?" In a way, this added non-binary dimension gives me a sort of novelistic insight into non-fiction, and helps me smell not a rat, but the degree of rattiness. You can see this same kind of thing at play in Carlo Ginzburg's wonderful history books (which is probably why I've got so many of them).

And the funny smell I sensed here wasn't from the academics (who were all hardworking, insightful, pragmatic and great), but from the Warburg Institute itself. You see, for all the Renaissance pictures of obscure Greco-Roman deities filed upstairs, the biggest mythology stored there is about the usefulness of the Warburg.

What you have to understand about the Warburg Institute's collections is that they were constructed as a kind of mad iconological machine by Aby Warburg for Aby Warburg to decode the secrets hidden in Renaissance art... but which were never there to decode. The Warburg Institute is therefore a kind of bizarre 1930s steampunk Internet, where every sub-page is devoted to the art history semantic conspiracy behind a different artefact (and the whole indexing is 50 years behind schedule).

As an analogy, David Kahn, with perhaps more than a hint of a sneer, calls the study of Baconian ciphers "enigmatology": the study of an enigma that was never there. And "Voynichology" as often practised seems little different to Kahn's "enigmatology"? (Which is why I don't call myself a "Voynichologist" any more: rather, I'm just an historian working on the Quattrocento mystery that just happens to be the Voynich Manuscript).

In my opinion, "Renaissance iconology" (which Dan Brown fictionalized as Robert Langdon's "symbology" in the Da Vinci Code, bless him) or indeed what one might call "Warburgology" is no less a failed thought-experiment than "enigmatology", or indeed "Voynichology": all share the same faulty methodology of requiring an hypothetical solution in order to make sense of something else uncertain.

But what of the man himself? For me, I see Aby Warburg's quest as being driven by the desire to move (through his research) ever closer to touch Renaissance gods on earth, through the clues about their Neoplatonic Heaven they left hidden in their works. But now we see that they were instead just jobbing artisans with books of emblems tucked into their work smocks: life is disappointing.

Look, I feel an immense amount of goodwill towards the Warburg Institute and all the people who sail in her: but a large part of me wishes for the mythology that shaped it to fall into the sea. Perhaps the sincere search for a God or Goddess is simply a kind of displaced search for dead, absent or idolized parents in the noise of the world, not unlike Mark Romanek's film "Static": if so, I think it's time we called off the search for Warburg's parents.


Conrad H. Roth said...

This is a bit odd, Nick. Yes, A. Warburg was a bit nuts, and yes, traditionalist Warburgian iconography (which has hardly been done much since the 60s) has methodological problems. But isn't that Hope's point? He (and others) are indeed Newton unweaving the rainbow, and you sound a bit like Shelley when you say:

"But now we see that they were instead just jobbing artisans with books of emblems tucked into their work smocks: life is disappointing."

So why long for the 'mythology that shaped [the Warburg] to fall into the sea'? Nobody is still peddling the old line; it has become part of history. But why banish? I, for one, am proud to belong to a place of such august heritage, even if that heritage has been superseded. It produced many beautiful objects, like Wind's "Pagan Mysteries" or Warburg's Botticelli thesis itself.

Furthermore, your dichotomy between old (uncritical) and new (critical) history is pretty flawed. You may like Ginzburg, but his account of Piero, for instance, is no more convincing than any other, and his methodology of art history is just as problematic. Similarly, you write that:

""Voynichology" as often practised seems little different to Kahn's "enigmatology"? (Which is why I don't call myself a "Voynichologist" any more: rather, I'm just an historian working on the Quattrocento mystery that just happens to be the Voynich Manuscript)."

You may not call yourself a 'Voynichologist', but The curse of the Voynich is just as much speculative fantasy as Newbold etc., with which it is happily classed in the Warburg Library. I enjoyed the book, especially the bit about the plants really being cogs and the roots looking like a horse, but from a scholarly point of view it has no more argumentative substance than all the lovely books produced by the Warburg mythology.

In short, I don't think you should be so dismissive towards what you consider to be so obviously outdated--any more than we should burn the VM for being just a useless book of old mumbo-jumbo.

Nick Pelling said...

Hi Conrad,

Thanks for taking a lowly blog post so seriously! And thanks for reading my book, too! :-)

The ironic point my post was trying to express was that, to me, the Warburg's whole rationale - the 'intellectual architecture' that determines where every book and every photo should sit - has turned out to be based on more of a constructed mythology than (as per Charles Hope) the claimed mythology it was supposed to help deconstruct.

And so the fact that Newbold's book sits close to mine is arguably more an expression of this mad organizing principle than of any other similarity between them. In short, just because a nutter placed my book next to another nutter's book doesn't make me a nutter too. :-)

Your claim that "traditionalist Warburgian iconology (which has hardly been done much since the 60s)" is surely a little narrow: I would counter that an entire mad iconological industry has grown from that slightly mutated seed - i.e. "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" and its million rabid heirs. For them, Aby Warburg is still very much alive in spirit.

And it is this spirit that I want to 'exorcise' or to cause "to fall into the sea", the same spirit that I think drove Baconian "enigmatology" and much "Voynichology", the hallucinatory spirit that moves backwards from an idealised conclusion to correlative evidence.

What I tried very hard to do was to use historical imagination to move forward from the sumtotal of the evidence. My book may turn out to be wrong (of course): but if it does, I am now quite sure that it will turn out to be painfully close to the right answer - the same kind of person at the same time and place, trying to achieve basically the same result with the same set of conceptual and artistic tools.

And so I naturally bridle a little at being compared with poor mad Newbold, who set out by looking for the wrong kind of cipher from the wrong person from the wrong country from the wrong century. Even if you disagree with my conclusions, please give me the basic credit that I'm at least trying to be "the right kind of wrong".

As for Carlo Ginzburg: though I feel an affinity with his way of working, I don't for a moment claim that he has a universal methodology. However, I do see him as having the bravery to use his feeling of humanity to tackle certain kinds of uncertain historical subject, not entirely dissimilar to the Voynich. But you're right, he was probably ill-advised to take Piero on. :-)

I suppose the point I would make to anyone working inside the Warburg Institute is this: have you stopped to think about the cost of maintaining it in the shape determined by Aby Warburg? I love open shelves (as I'd be reasonably sure you do too), but is it really worth £1m+ per year (I don't know the actual figure, you tell me) to keep the Warburg alive in its fossilized form? Is it really justifiable on any grounds apart from pure intellectual nostalgia? Simply appealing to "heritage" doesn't work for me, sorry.

PS: it was because I had been thinking about 1930s Germany that I dropped in the quotation from Cabaret: "So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful." Enjoy! :-)

Conrad H. Roth said...

A number of points. Last first perhaps: talking about financial cost is very dangerous. If you want to get pragmatic about it, I can't think of any universites or intellectual institutions (at least not in the humanities) that are 'worth' the cost. I was sitting in Clare College Cambridge recently, and one of the fellows informed me that their small library of old books had been valued at several million: "Should we sell the collection for practical funds?" We agreed that it shouldn't. The Warburg is no more useless or valueless than Chicago Divinity School or the Sorbonne's French Literature dept.: it simply cannot be evaluated by financial criteria.

When I said that Warburg iconography hadn't been done since the 60s, I meant at the Warburg. Nonsense has been peddled since, just as it was peddled before. Is HBHG more indebted to Warburg than it is to Frazer or Jesse Weston? I haven't read it, so I don't know, but I'm not convinced that Warburg had any significant part to play in the growth of this pseudo-scholarly industry.

"What I tried very hard to do was to use historical imagination to move forward from the sumtotal of the evidence."

Perhaps the Newbold comparison was a bit harsh. (I might add that I think his book was brilliant.) However, most scholars (like most scientists) have thought they were basing themselves only on the sum-total of brute facts. But facts (or evidence) are not theory-independent. It is not as easy as it seems to first isolate facts and then reach conclusions, because the two processes are always tangled up together. This is, basically, the hermeneutic circle, and in fact a lot of Warburgian material (e.g. Gombrich) is in part an attempt to grapple with this problem.

My point is that things you take for granted as basic, because you want to see them, might not, in fact, be basic. To take one random example, it is not at all clear to me that (on Curse, p. 18), the Q6 mark is a continuation of the Q2 downward stroke: to me it looks pretty different. Now, I may be wrong, and it may be irrelevant anyway: but the point is that you are forced to get down to matters of blunt intuition: does A look enough like B to justify your reasoning? Who can say? Newbold had all sorts of assumptions that you and I know were wrong: but the same is probably true of Curse, as the next person will probably point out. I'm not trying to be nasty; I just don't really believe in the 'right kind of wrong'.

The Voynich MS, like the Hypnerotomachia and other texts, is too isolated as a historical phenomenon, too tenuously moored to other facts and events, to be more than a mirror for original narratives. That is why books about it will always, in my opinion, be more curious and delightful than convincing. I think the challenge is too great.

Nick Pelling said...

Hi Conrad,

Perhaps you haven't grasped my point about cost, which is not the cost of running the Warburg at all, but the excess cost of running it precisely in line with Aby Warburg's original vision/delusion (you choose which). Perhaps you view things differently, but I see the Warburg Institute not as a library filled with unique books so much as a unique library filled with books: and there's a big category difference between the two.

And when I said that I wished the 'Warburgological' mythology would fall in the sea, I was tilting at the larger windmill comprising both it and all the faux "symbological" iconology that followed. I suppose my position is that in the broader cultural memory, most people still conjure up an image of art history as a primarily "Warburgological" enterprise (even though this is plainly not true of recent scholarship). I don't think Dan Brown invented Robert Langdon, so much as steered a wider perception into a vaguely character-shaped silhouette.

And so I would say that the bigger problem is that as far as mass culture goes, a crushing amount of literature is still written inside a Romantic sensibility, for which quasi-god-like Renaissance artists (and all their modern reincarnations) are necessary cartoon figures within the dramatic swells and blusters: and so Hopean skeptical art history, which busies itself by deliberately pricking such nonsensical bubbles, is deeply unsexy (though correct).

As far as things like the hermeneutic circle go, I should perhaps mention that I did my entire dissertation on epistemology, and am acutely aware of the origins, nature and limitations of evidence and explanations, of theory and models, and of scenarios and predictions: and also of how these form both useful and deceptive knowledge constellations ("ideologies", for want of a better term).

And so it is that wherever I make claims in my book, I have specific and direct reasons for making them. For the quire marks on Q2 and Q6 (and indeed for Q5 and Q3) on p.18 you mention, though I at first (when looking at the reproductions) suspected they might be stroke continuations, I checked to see if they lined up exactly when I physically examined the VMs at the Beinecke (the curators very kindly allowed me three days with it): and yes, they did line up perfectly.

As to your final paragraph: if the VMs was (like the Hypnerotomachia) a printed object, I would agree with your view that it is probably too isolated for it to be recoverable. But there is an entire forensic world of internal evidence within the manuscript which I believe gives us the opportunity to understand it on an entirely different level, should we choose to grasp that particular nettle.

All of which points to why I cannot easily share your view of the intractability of the challenge. I believe that The Curse formed a good first (forensic) iteration of separating the VMs' tangled layers to restore a credible vision of what the primary state of the manuscript was: just so you know, I went to the Warwick/Warburg Early Modern Techniques course as part of my ongoing attempts to do a second (more full-on art historical) pass.

Perhaps that, rather than just the forensic stuff, will yield the particular kind of persuasion that you look for in an account? I hope so! ;-)