Totentanz: operationalising Aby Warburg’s
body-formulas of passion

Totentanz: operationalising Aby Warburg’s body-formulas of passion

Franco Moretti (Stanford, EPFL) & Leonardo Impett (EPFL)

(Séminaire de recherche du Bodmer Lab 2016-2017)

23 mars 2017 | Uni Bastions | B 104


Aby Warburg understood that art, passions and emotions are not only portrayed mimetically. Sometimes, they come to us through repeated formulas – most often, formulas of the body – which he christened Pathosformeln. These Pathosformeln move from antiquity to the modern period, in mythological or everyday scenes, from high art to popular book-prints. Neither depiction nor symbol, Pathosformeln lie in the Zwischenraum that Warburg identified between semiotic and primitive reactions.


His most ambitious project, the Bilderatlas, was unfinished by his death. Our collaborative project tries to understand the Pathosformel and its role in the Bilderatlas through computational and formal means. We present our attempt to operationalise the Pathosformel – that is, to turn it into a sequence of quantitative operations – and in doing so reach a better critical understanding of the Pathosformel itself, as in the disassembling of a clock-mechanism. By reducing the Pathosformel to its bare constituents, viewing them as statistical phenomena, we find a remarkable unity across Warburg’s taxonomy of passion.