The Nachleben and the Cultural Memory of Ancient Egypt conference took place at the Warburg Institute in December 2018. The event reflected on the current state of the research into the pre-Egyptological conceptualisation, visualisation and materialisation of pharaonic Egypt and considered whether there were common methodological bases for further research. The fourth edition of the AegyptiacaJournal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt has recently been published and features papers presented at the conference.

In this blog post, Dr. Florian Ebeling, Editor of Aegyptiaca, discusses what took place during the conference and the topics of research that can be found in the latest edition of the journal.

At first glance it might seem that Aby Warburg’s “Nachleben der Antike” has a relevant effect on contemporary reception research. A closer look reveals, however, that Warburg does not in fact play a significant role in the methodological discussion of reception studies and that the interest in knowledge differs significantly. However, Warburg does provide a distinct effect in the concept of “cultural memory”, as developed by Aleida and Jan Assmann, and the recurrent method of “mnemohistory”. But what exactly are the differences between mnemohistory and reception studies, and to what extent can they be sensibly associated?

Participants of the Nachleben and the Cultural Memory of Ancient Egypt conference

Researchers from Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Italy and Great Britain met at the Warburg Institute from 6 to 8 December 2018 to explore this question, with a side view on the “Nachleben” of ancient Egypt. With Aleida Assmann, Jan Assmann and Carlo Ginzburg, three scholars took part who, like few others, have fruitfully translated Warburg’s suggestions into their own research approaches over the past decades.

The papers documenting our lively and stimulating discussion have now been published and can be downloaded for free as the fourth issue of the journal “Aegyptiaca. Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt”.

First and foremost we observed a fundamental difference between reception studies and mnemohistory (or cultural memory). If reception research emphasises these synchronous conditions of the construction of a historical notion, diachronic development is the focal point in studies of Nachleben or Mnemohistory. Despite the difference in perspective, in both cases a “longue durée” of ancient Egypt, in which a diversity of understanding and interpretation of Egypt has unfolded, is combined with a microhistorical analysis, in which the image of Egypt is then concretised. In the studies that are attributed to reception analysis, the focus is on the latter; in mnemohistory, the interaction of the former and the latter is emphasised.

Jan and Aleida Assmann extrapolated how much mnemohistory can achieve by investigating diachronic traditions linked to the motif of the Ouroboro. In contrast, Eleanor Dobson provided a fine example of reception research: in a synchronous cut, she focused on the interplay between the concept of Egypt and gender discussions in the Fin de Siècle.

In his analysis of Erwin Panofsky’s concept of reception, Ulrich Rehm showed that the understanding of (reception-)history is decisively shaped by the scientist’s historicity. To write pure factual history would seem to be a naïve undertaking.

In order to understand the research program of contemporary reception research, we also focused on one of its most important impulses, the “aesthetics of reception” of the Konstanz school, in particular Hans-Robert Jauß. Jauß in turn was decisively influenced by Hans Blumenberg; in his paper Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann highlighted how Blumenberg’s reflections on reception led to his “metaphorology”, and how usefully this model can be applied to Athanasius Kircher’s concept of Egypt.

I examined Hans Georg Gadamer’s “history of effect”, which was largely adopted by Jauß. Gadamer’s problematic concept of the classical, however, was rejected by Jauss. By following Jauß, unfortunately, a good part of reception research ignored not also the problematic concept of the classical, but also Gadamer’s meaningful conclusion that the space between the past and the present is crucial for understanding both and should be considered as a realm for the development of historical semantics.

The shift from “Nachleben” as a fact-based historiography by means of “aesthetics of reception” and the “history of effect” to the focus on attribution of meaning in contemporary reception research and mnemohistory remains a provocation: what are facts, what is meaning, how do they relate to each other in history and its perception? Using a reference to Egypt in the “new sciences”, Carlo Ginzburg examined how mnemohistory can be supplemented or even counteracted by a fact-based history in which not the hidden interior but the sensual and quantifiable became the criterion of knowledge. In his contribution, Martin Mulsow argues in favour of supplementing mnemohistory with an attested history of transmission. Mnemohistory unfolds its epistemological potential only against a contrasting background of actual historical constellations or ways of transmission.

In general the participants drew our attention to the fruitfulness and adaptability of the memory story: Miguel John Versluys and Caroline van Eck evinced how far the approach of Nachleben and Mnemohistory can reach with regard to material culture; Joachim Schaper demonstrated the implications of the research of “Nachleben” of the Exodus-motif in Early Christianity. Despite this, Mordechai Feingold took a critical look at the mnemohistory as told by Jan Assmann in Moses the Egyptian.

In addition to “afterlife”, “mnemohistory” and “reception studies”, there are other approaches that can be brought to the analysis of the relevance of prehistory in the wake of “Nachleben”. Johannes Helmrath introduced the concept of “Allelopoiesis”, which was developed within the Berlin Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) “Transformationen der Antike”.

The discussion on the relationship between reception and mnemohistory seems to have only just begun and promises to offer both lines of research a new impetus. The Warburg Institute was and is the perfect place to enter into this discussion. It was only thanks to the hospitality of the Warburg Institute staff that this conference was able to develop such a stimulating dynamic. This conference was an encouraging and inspiring opening to an ongoing discussion that will be continued at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel in December 2019.

I would like to thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for their generous funding of the conference.

Dr. Florian Ebeling, Editor of Aegyptiaca

Read Aegyptiaca. Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt

Find out what’s on at the Warburg

%d bloggers like this: