Temporal Lesions: Warburg Draws the Brain

There has never been a time or place without its own philosophies and practices of memory. Yet scientists in Europe only began studying it empirically in the late 19th century, as anatomy and physiology gradually transformed this mental faculty into an object of positive knowledge. The site of that knowledge was henceforth the human brain; the path to its investigation was pathology. In 1861, Paul Broca famously elucidated how a case of aphasia – the loss of articulated speech – had been “caused” by a lesion to the patient’s left frontal lobe, the convolution known today as ‘Broca’s area’. In 1874, Carl Wernicke then established the connection between a nearby region of the brain and the comprehension of speech, likewise by examining patients who had lost that ability. Slowly but surely, anatomists seemed to realize – by the via negativa, as it were – a project that had previously been associated with the pseudo-science of phrenology: the localization of the mind in (grey) matter.

In the spring of 1892, the young Aby Warburg impetuously abandoned what he saw as the “aestheticizing” excesses of art history to pursue a career in the hard science of medicine. In the end, his medical studies at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin lasted only a single semester; yet as would only become clear much later, this phase of study left a deep impression upon his thinking. Following the lectures of the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus – a pioneer of the experimental study of recollection and forgetting – Warburg was initiated into the state of the art of contemporary neurological research, including the problem of cerebral localization.

Fig. 1. Warburg Institute Archive, ZK 41/021866. Photo: The Warburg Institute, London.

Among his notes from Ebbinghaus’s lectures, now held at the Warburg Institute Archive, one finds a detailed drawing showing a lateral view of the left hemisphere of the brain [Fig. 1]. Bold ink lines delimit the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes, while colored pencil and Greek characters designate specific regions as functional centers; the green area marked β, for instance, refers to Broca’s area, the “center” of speech production. As indicated at the top right, the diagram was copied from the German translation of Gilbert Ballet’s book Le langage intérieur et les diverses formes de l’aphasie (1890; 1st ed. 1888), where it was originally rendered in black and white [Fig. 2].[1]

Fig. 2. Gilbert Ballet, Die innerliche Sprache und die verschiedenen Formen der Aphasie (Leipzig: Deuticke, 1890), 176.

Following the ideas of his teacher Jean-Marie Charcot, Ballet in his diagram decomposed the word qua mental entity into its auditory, visual, motor, and graphic components – or to use the parlance of the period, into its images. Hence each cerebral area highlighted by the diagram represented a dedicated neurological deposit for “script images,” “language images,”, “writing images” and “speech images,” respectively [Schriftbilder, Sprachbilder, Sprechbilder, Schreibebilder]. Ballet’s book was hardly alone in using such nomenclature, which was shared at the time by French, German and English scientists alike.[2] For the philosopher Henri Bergson, for instance, whose work Matière et mémoire engages closely with the findings of aphasia studies, the term ‘image’ denotes “an existence placed halfway between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation,’” between the material and the ideal.[3] This may be why images played such a focal role in Bergson’s own philosophical investigation of memory, a domain he located precisely at the “intersection of mind and matter.”[4] And one might justly wonder whether, within the folds and convolutions of the human brain, the young Warburg might not have found a material model of memory which bore pregnant parallels with the ‘memory’ of a culture: both, after all, were equally structured around the conservation and reproduction of images.

Initially the project of cerebral localization had promised to reveal memory’s place within physical space.[5] According to some, the many ‘images’ that make up a word were simply deposited in “word dumps” connected by stronger or weaker nervous pathways.[6] Yet such somaticist reductionism also met with strong resistance. Bergson declared it “vain . . . to treat memory-images and ideas as ready-made things, and then assign to them an abiding place in problematical centers.”[7] Another voice of opposition was that of the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud, whose first book Zur Auffassung der Aphasien (1891) is included in Warburg’s bibliography on aphasia.[8] In this entirely theoretical treatise, Freud criticized those accounts of aphasia which simply ascribed speech loss to local lesions or damaged pathways. Rather, he argued that “the speech area is a continuous cortical region within which the associations and transmissions underlying the speech functions are taking place; they are of a complexity beyond comprehension.”[9] As L.S. Jacyna comments, “Freud might have added that it was also beyond representation.”[10]

In this light it may seem ironic that the remembrance and forgetting of words, which were so widely held to consist in ‘images’, should have so obstinately resisted visual representation. Aphasiologists like Wernicke and Ballet earned the pejorative label of “diagram makers” for their brain maps, which lent the appearance of a static topography to what were in truth diffused, dynamic functions.[11] By contrast, Freud in his book produced what Jacyna has pointedly called an “anti-diagram”: “No brain profile was depicted; there were no centers to store the memories of words, and no sign of an ‘executive’ center to control the movements associated with language” [Fig. 3].[12]

Fig. 3. Sigmund Freud, Zur Auffassung des Aphasien: Eine kritische Studie (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke, 1891), 79.

The brain diagram Warburg copied from Ballet represented an early effort towards tracing the passage of images through the “space” of memory – a problem he came closest to resolving in the Mnemosyne atlas. He had aligned himself with a philosophical current that stressed the identity of mind and matter as early as 1888.[13] But although his personal obsession with establishing a material basis for memory never waned, over the course of time he came to displace the locus of memory from the human individual to mobile images, texts and objects.

In this respect, Warburg’s practice of visually mapping memory mirrors developments within brain science itself, where the localization diagrams of the late 19thcentury slowly gave way to a more distributed and decentralized kind of “network map”. As Katja Guenther explains, neuroscientists today no longer talk in terms of centers, but of circuits: “They aim to understand how brain circuitry shifts as synapses, the points of connections between nerve cells, constantly change their form.”[14] If Warburg’s interest in cerebral localization and the specific causes of aphasia was short-lived, these problems nevertheless continued to impact his materialistic approach to the history of images. The panels of the Mnemosyne atlas are much closer, after all, to Freud’s decentered “anti-diagram” than to Ballet’s brain map. By visualizing the synaptic connections between images, they reflect those gaps and pathways in which historical “memory” is incessantly forged and forgotten, the numberless lesions left by time.

[1] Cf. Willem J. M. Levelt, A History of Psycholinguistics. The Pre-Chomskyian Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 88.

[2] See Valerie D. Greenberg, Freud and His Aphasia Book: Language and the Sources of Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 140 and passim. Such designation of words as “images” in the mind extended even to the terminology Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology, precipitating problems of interpretation that have lasted until the present day. The translator of a recent English edition of Saussure’s influential Geneva lectures calls the latter’s concept of the image acoustique “perhaps the most unhappy choice in the whole range of Saussurean terminology.” See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris (London: Bloomsbury Academic, [1983] 2013), xxi.

[3] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy M. Paul and W. Scott Palmer (Brooklyn: Zone, [1896] 1988), 9.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Wernicke for instance asserted confidently that “the cerebral cortex with its 600 millions of cells … offers a sufficiently great number of storage places in which the innumerable sensory impressions provided by the outer world can be stored one by one without interference.” Carl Wernicke, Der aphasische Symptomencomplex: Eine psychologische Studie auf anatomischer Basis (Breslau: Max Cohn and Weigert, 1874), 5, cit. in L. S. Jacyna, Lost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain, 1825–1926 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 176. Compare Michael Roth, “Remembering Forgetting: Maladies de la Mémoire in Nineteenth-Century France,” Representations no. 26 (Spring, 1989), 49-68: 52.

[6] For these hardline materialists, Jacyna observes, such “‘word dumps’ were discrete; communication between them depended on the integrity of determinate nervous pathways.” Jacyna, op. cit., 176.

[7] Bergson, op. cit., 125.

[8] Warburg Institute Archive, ZK 41/021845. For an insightful reading of Freud’s aphasia book see Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias. On the Forgetting of Language (Brooklyn: Zone, 2005), 133-145.

[9] Sigmund Freud, On Aphasia: A Critical Study, trans. E. Stengel (London: Imago, 1953), 62 [idem., Zur Auffassung des Aphasien: Eine kritische Studie (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke, 1891), 64], cit. in Jacyna, Lost Words, op. cit., 178. My emphasis.

[10] Jacyna, ibid. If only in a narrow sense, Freud’s relatively holistic conception of brain functions can be seen as anticipating the work of Kurt Goldstein and Karl Lashley. See Kurt Danziger, Marking the Mind: A History of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 231.

[11] The term “diagram makers” in this debate goes back to the British neurologist Henry Head; see Levelt, op. cit., 79. Bergson, in a different connection, stressed that the dominant scientific visualizations of memory ignored the crucial role of time: “The difficulty that we have in conceiving [the survival of the past] comes simply from the fact that we extend to the series of memories, in time, that obligation of containing and being contained which applies only to the collection of bodies instantaneously perceived in space. The fundamental illusion consists in transferring to duration itself, in its continuous flow, the form of the instantaneous sections which we make in it.” Bergson, op. cit., 149.

[12] Jacyna, op. cit., 179.

[13] In that year he began the collection of aphorisms initially titled “Foundational Fragments towards a Monistic Psychology of Art”. On the background of Warburg’s enigmatic “monism”, see Spyros Papapetros, “On the Biology of the Inorganic: Crystallography and Discourses of Latent Life in the Art and Architectural Historiography of the Early 20th Century,” in Biocentrism and Modernism, eds. Oliver A.I. Botar and Isabel Wünsche (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 77-106.Warburg also learned about psychophysical parallelism from Ebbinghaus: that is, the doctrine that that body and soul are an ontologically identical fact, distinct only in the form of their manifestation. like the convex and concave sides of the same surface, in Gustav Theodor Fechner’s oft-cited example. Thus Warburg hypothesized that the difference between ganglion cells and thoughts was merely nominal – or at most a matter of erudition. “6.V.92 / Leib u. Seele identisches Factum, nur zu schieden durch die Art d. Manifestation. / belesen: Ganglienzellen / unbelesen: Gedanken / nach außen Convex nach innen Concaven.” Warburg Institute Archive ZK 41/021821.

[14] Katja Guenther, Localization and Its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the Neuro Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2.


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