The haptic transfer and the travels of the abstract line: Embodied perception from classical Islam to modern Europe Abstract
The major formal elements of Western modernism, the haptic image and abstract line (see Deleuze and Guattari 1987), arrived to the West in considerable part through the influence of Islamic art. The occurrence of these tendencies in the nineteenth century accompanied a new understanding of perception as subjective and performative—an understanding that was long at work in Islamic aesthetics and philosophy. Theories of perception from Islamic thinkers such as Al Kindi and Ibn Al Haytham, as early as the ninth century, influenced European early modern optics, were eclipsed by Renaissance conceptions of visuality, and were revived—with their origins obscured--in the late nineteenth century in the new discipline of psychology the thought of Bergson, Riegl, and others. Abstract line and haptic space in European modern arts appeal to this embodied and subjective perception. What I call the haptic transfer and the travels of the abstract line facilitated the spread of Islamic aesthetics to the West in a time of genuine intercultural hunger, deeply altering the recipient society.
In European art from the mid-nineteenth century, painting began to let go of figuration in two ways. Color and texture began to lift off the forms they described, allowing haptic images to rise to the surface of the painting. Line unfurled from the figures it demarcated and leapt into abstract life. Abstraction in painting reached out to the senses of a perceiver, who had to consult her inner faculties in order to respond in a subjective and, often, embodied way. The haptic image and abstract line (see Deleuze and Guattari 1987), the major formal elements of Western modernism, arrived to the West in considerable part through the influence of Islamic art.
What I call the haptic transfer and the travels of the abstract line facilitated the spread of Islamic aesthetics to the West in a time of genuine intercultural hunger, deeply altering the recipient society. The occurrence of these tendencies in the nineteenth century accompanied a new understanding of perception –new, that is, in Europe; it had been developed by Islamic thinkers as early as the ninth century. Thus we can say that the haptic image and abstract line ushered a new form of perception into the West (for I contend that form itself gives hints to the perceiver as to how it may best be perceived).
The haptic transfer and the travels of the abstract line, as in the well-known geometric and vegetal ornament of Islamic religious architecture, facilitated the spread of Islamic aesthetics to the West in a time of genuine intercultural hunger, deeply altering the recipient society. Developed by Islamic thinkers as early as the ninth century, the haptic image and abstract line ushered a new form of perception into the West. The occurrence of these tendencies in the nineteenth century accompanied a new understanding of perception –new, that is, in Europe– as subjective and performative. Islamic traditions of embodied perception
Writings by Arab classical philosophers, theologians, scientists, and literary critics establish again and again a perceptual position that is embodied, multisensory, contemplative, and subjective.1 These writings often coexist with and make sense of the arts—ceramics, textiles, painting, poetry, music, and more—that flourished in and beyond the caliphates of ninth-century Baghdad, tenth-century Cairo, and eleventh-century Cordoba.2
Two tendencies in Islamic classical thought especially support and require some notion of perception as embodied. To begin with, embodied experience is part of being a good Muslim. Islamic philosophy generally adopted the Aristotelian conception that the body is integral to human happiness, and not, as in the Platonic and Christian traditions, the cage of the soul (Behrens-Abouseif, 199, 69). Islam actively discourages asceticism. Ultimately, especially in mystical strands of Islam, body and world must be transcended, but meanwhile, Islam understands humans to be God’s regents on earth. Sensuous experience, properly regulated, is part of the appreciation of the beauty engendered by God. So material experience is a route to the transcendental, to the appreciation of (the ineffable) God. Indeed, poetry, architecture, music and wine are often praised in the courtly society of classical Islam as refined pleasures in their own right. These writings also indicate a multisensory aesthetics, as courtly literature frequently refers to the participation of fragrances, gustatory delicacies, fountains, music, and visual splendor, in aesthetic experience (Hourani 1991, 196). 3 Al-Kindi’s (d. 866) books on music, adopting Greek doctrines that related elements and humours to notes and rhythms, recommended a multisensory therapy combining music, colors, and perfumes—a sort of proto-aromatherapy gesamtkunstwerk (Hourani 1991, 196). The perceiver in classical Islamic thought is not only embodied but also subjective.
At the same time, Islam in principle permits fewer mediators to the transcendental experience than does Christianity, especially Catholicism. Without figural representations of the divinity, let alone its incarnation, the believer in Islam is confronted with a steep route toward spiritual knowledge. Images do not mediate or prop this experience so easily. Instead they assume the abstraction, ineffability, and unknowability—but also beauty and goodness—of God. I must note that there are many variations in Islamic use of figurative mediators. Unlike the more severe Sunni Islam, Shi’a Islam (with the mediating figure of the imam) and Sufism permit saints, shrines, and figurative images that mediate religious experience. Sunni Islam, while rejecting anthropomorphism, permits a conception of a personal God, which is in turn a mediator with the inconceivable divine (Nagel 2000, 245-50). The result of these two qualities is that Islamic art has a tendency to be both embodied and abstract. The attention invited by Islamic art tends to be embodied, subjective, and performative.
Islamic aesthetics offers many ideas about the power of abstract pattern for spiritual contemplation, as well as disincentives to realism. Figurative images are not eschewed altogether, but their dependence on a higher order is emphasized. The radical abstraction of Islamic art is the result of the view, carried down from radical Mu‘tazili atomistic philosophers of 9th century Iraq, that God, being indivisible, has no attributes. Thus any attempt to identify the properties of God in art risks blasphemy (Khalidi 1985, 84). It is impossible to conceive of God. Even less radical strains of Islam enjoin an imaginative engagement with the infinite in religious contemplation. Abstraction is thus a way not to represent but to perform the engagement with the infinite that is the act of worship.4 As Gülrü Necipoglu has demonstrated, Islamic rationalist philosophy in the classical period placed great importance on the “internal faculties” that mediate between perception and intellect (Necipoglu 1995). Ya’qub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (801-66), Al-Farabi (d. 950), and later Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) enumerated inner faculties such as imagination, memory, and estimation or judgment. These views were greatly expanded in the work, both philosophical and experimental, of Ibn Al-Haytham (b. Basra 965, d. Cairo 1039), known in the West as Alhazen. Al-Haytham introduced the intromission theory of vision in his Kitab al-Manazir or Treatise on Optics. Translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in 1572 and published in Basel by Reisner (Ahmad 1969, 37), it remained the major work on optics until Kepler in the seventeenth century (Lindberg 1976, 58-60). This great polymath’s writings on perceptual psychology and aesthetics, synthesizing Neoplatonic and Islamic perspectives, explicate a conception of subjective, embodied, and multisensory perception. Perception for Al-Haytham consists of a compound of sensations that are mentally compared—for example, the sight, sound, and smell experienced by a man sitting on a riverbank listening to music and admiring lovely women (Nasir 1969, 85).
In the Optics, Al-Haytham posited that there are two modes of perception, immediate and contemplative. The former is accomplished by the senses alone, the latter requires the internal faculty of judgment. He argued that contemplation is necessary for the recognition of form, for it requires memory and comparison, carried out in what he called the faculty of judgment. Form is thus a psychological concept, not a given in nature; and ascertainment can only be relative, to the limits of sense perception Sabra 1994, 170-171). Al-Haytham’s understanding of perception is time-based, deductive, and subjective. He listed 22 visible properties (e.g. light, color, distance, solidity) that singly or in combination determine the appearance of things. However, each of these is determined by inference, by mental comparison (Sabra 1994, 177-178). So in Al-Haytham’s Optics, almost all of perception takes place internally. Because of its emphasis on judgment, this theory of perception implies a subject who is educable and capable of introspection.
Al Haytham, born in Basra, spent some years working for the Fatimid court in Cairo (when he was not feigning insanity in order to avoid imprisonment by the mad caliph al-Hakim II). Necipoglu suggests that he was thinking of the arabesque and geometric patterns proliferating in the architecture of this city when he came up with his theory of subjective perception, as these vertiginous patterns, she writes, “presuppose a private way of looking” (Necipoglu 1995, 204). Oleg Grabar (1992) similarly remarks upon the relativism of Haytham's criteria for beauty: "He assumes that qualitative decisions of beauty are based on what would be called today the user's or the observer's context, not on intrinsic properties of artifacts” (232). Art historians thus agree that Al-Haytham’s perceptual psychology was in tune with the abstract art of his time.
The fall and rise of embodied perception in Europe
As religious conservatism waxed across the Islamic world, the rationalist philosophy and experimental science that produced these understandings of subjectivity and perception waned. They traveled westward, however, in the great movements of translation of Arabic manuscripts into Latin in medieval Europe. It is now generally acknowledged that the European intellectual renaissance was largely fueled by this intercultural movement. What’s interesting to note is that a “European” concept of perception did not arise until some centuries later, with the rise of experimentation in visuality and perspective. During the medieval period of translation, Arab-Islamic notions of embodied, multisensory, and subjective perception echo in the aesthetics of Europe. For example Doris Behrens-Abouseif (1999), citing De Bruyne’s 1947 treatise, L’Esthétique du Moyen Age, suggests that Roger Bacon’s statement that full aesthetic pleasure is simultaneous satisfaction of all the senses may have been Arab influenced, and that Thomas of York “used Arabic sources to emphasize the psychological and subjective character of beauty” (42).
As A.I. Sabra (1994) notes, the extreme subjectivity of Al-Haytham’s theory of perception was due to an error (85-118). Although his theory of vision arose from experiment, he did not take account of the activity of the lens in focusing light rays in the eye. Such a perceptual experience would certainly have required mental judgment on the part of the perceiver to distinguish among all the resulting images: hence his emphasis on subjective judgment, which was taken up by European medieval theories of vision. Byzantine and medieval art, eliciting an embodied and multisensory response, might be said to combine Christian iconography with an Islamic visuality (see Mondzain, 2004; Classen, 1998). It was to be corrected by Johannes Kepler with his theory of the retinal image based on a comparison of the eye to a camera obscura. Kepler’s intervention, though still grounded in the medieval tradition prepared the way for a more objectivist model of the eye’s role in perception (Lindberg 1976, 207-208).
In the late nineteenth century, as biologists were beginning to recognize the highly subjective nature of vision, Henri Bergson was one of the major philosophers to try to redefine the subject of perception as an alert and flexible “center of indetermination” (1988, chapter 1 passim.). In his Matière et mémoire of 1896, Bergson establishes his model of embodied perception, an ever-widening, quasi-hermeneutic circuit in which perception calls up memory and memory enriches and refines perception. But as Jonathan Crary (1992) points out, Bergson’s theory of perception was an ideal of perception, posited with a certain anxiety for a subject that is already slipping away. Industrial and urbanized Europe was increasingly to be producing perceptual situations that dazzled, overwhelmed, or crushed the perceiver, or simply left no time for the deliberate dialectic between perception and internal faculties. Like Al Haytham and other Islamic philosophers, Bergson describes an ideal subject suspended somewhere between an internal point and the external world, between memory and perception, between interiority and dispersal. Their worries about the dissolution of communicability in their newly industrialized cities inform a certain urgency to define perception as a subjective foray into an objectively knowable world. In the Islamic ideal of subjective contemplation, the interior journey aided by one’s internal faculties could intersubjectively confirm the existence of the empiricial world, but ultimately confirmed the existence of an objective, abstract order: that of divine creation. Evidently this solution would not work for the late-nineteenth century European philosophers.
It is all too well agreed that the arts and sciences of the European Renaissance established a model of visual perception as relatively disembodied and objective, which lasted into the nineteenth century. Only then did experimental optics newly reveal visuality to be embodied, subjective, and subject to external and internal conditions (see Crary, 1992). And then, in a revisionist history that is itself now well known, perception was newly understood to take place in a subject permeable to bodily, psychic, and social experience. Thus we may say with a soupçon of chauvinism that it took European optics four centuries (after Kepler) to first improve upon, then return to, the subjective perception Al Haytham delineated in the eleventh century.
It is interesting that around the same time, the mid- to late nineteenth century, Western art entered a period of abstraction that newly elicited a subjective, synaesthetic, embodied, and temporal approach on the part of its spectator—an approach we may call performative.5 Characterized both by haptic space and abstract line, the new art of nineteenth-century Europe had many formal commonalities with Islamic art, while the psychology inaugurated by Bergson and others has much in common with Islamic theories of perception.
Performative aesthetics in Islamic art
Abstract line and haptic space are performative, rather than representational. They require the imaginative and subjective participation of the beholder to bring their effects into being, beckoning each pair of eyes to follow in their own fashion. Like the haptic image, with its lively interaction between figure and ground, the abstract line draws the beholder out of herself. In favoring movement, the ego is thus disentangled. Repeating infinitely, as in the well-known geometric and vegetal ornament of Islamic religious architecture, the abstract line invites the beholder to try to feel the ungraspable infinity of God. Thus Ernst Gombrich (1979) thoughtfully reverses an Orientalist cliché, calling Islamic overall patterns an expression not of horror vacui but of “amor infinity” (80). Yet as Sayyed Hossain Nasr (1987) insists, this infinity is in a constant play with the void. “There is an aspect of nothingness or void which lies in the very nature of the whole created order and which is a direct consequence of the fact that, in an absolute sense, only God is real. ... The arabesque enables the void to enter into the very heart of matter” (186; see Burckhardt, 231-235).
Nasr, as more sober art historians have grumbled, takes a romantic and ahistorical view of the mystical effects of Islamic art. His description of an ecstatic loss of self in the contemplation of the abstract line echoes Sufi mysticism. And indeed many Westerners are drawn to Islam’s mystical variant in search of a loss of self, as Sufism describes the love for God as a moth’s love for the flame. But other figures in the history of Islamic aesthetics suggest a more guarded play of subjectivity in the contemplation of abstract pattern.
The principles established by Al Haytham, accepted and elaborated upon by later rationalist philosophers such as Ibn Rushd (known in West as Averroes, d. 1198), demonstrate that in Islamic aesthetics the active engagement of the beholder is the subject of the work. Rushd, for example, emphasizes that a viewer constructs a series of subjective virtual worlds: “the principle of [the viewer’s] cogitation about things indeed consists in rendering present all the different kind of images of the imagined possibilities concerning the thing on which he is cogitating, as if he were seeing what he is cogitating on” (quoted in Gonzales 2001, 63). Rushd’s aesthetics, as developed here in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima, emphasizes the subjective actualization of virtual states. This aesthetic describes artwork that has nothing to “say”—that does not require interpretation per se—but holds out an invitation to the beholder. Thus we can think of abstraction and ornament as performative.
Ornament obtains a certain license from Islamic theology. The Qur’an cautions artists not to compete with God, who is the only creator. In accordance with the conservative ’Asharite doctrine that came to dominate Sunni Islam, the world is finite, created by God out of nothing, and to which nothing can be added. In such a world, originality consists not in invention but in skilful new variations on a theme (Behrens-Abouseif 1999, 100; see Sperl 1989). Humans can only embellish the excellence of already existing creation. This is one of the reasons that ornament flourished in Islamic art: rather than creating from nothing, it reveals new connections. A conservative tendency in theology yields a lively engagement on the part of the viewer of art or hearer of music or poetry. Baghdadi literary theorist ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 1078) exemplified this tendency of Islamic aesthetics when he wrote that in all arts and crafts, “the more widely differed the shape and appearance of their parts are and then the more perfect the harmony achieved between these parts is,” the more “fascinating” and praiseworthy the resulting work will be (Necipoglu 1995, 189). The power of poetic imagery, Al-Jurjani wrote, is its “ability to penetrate hidden meanings and thus reveal invisible things” (ibid). Veiled poetic speech “invites the recipient to search or the hidden pearl”; it’s thus more precious than direct rational speech (Behrens-Abouseif 1995, 104). Value is placed on works of art that beguile the viewer or listener to imaginatively explore them.
Ornament, according to Oleg Grabar (1992), may have a ludic or a liturgical function: “Both have prescribed rules of behavior and of utterance from which one should not deviate, but in a liturgy the outcome is always known in advance, whereas in a game it is not” (207). Iconography is liturgical; “evocative manipulation” is a game: “It recalls meanings without compelling them. It transfers the decision of how to understand a work of art to its viewer or user” (207). Ornament provides not an anarchic field for the play of perception, but the rules of the game, the abstract structure in which subjective perception acts.
“Ornaments are recursions that keep going by recalling previous and anticipating further forms,” so Niklas Luhmann (reference, page number) writes. Luhmann captures here the algorithmic qualities of ornament, whereby one theme, for example a geometric form, can be varied endlessly by simple iteration and change. It also indicates the performative way in which ornament is perceived: looking at a single form, we can anticipate its variations, where it came from and where it is going, as it were. As such, looking at ornament (or indeed listening to music or poetry with an ornamental structure) is a personal exercise in unfolding its possibilities in time.
While meaning does not lie in the object alone, I think that we can analyze an object in terms of the kinds of reception it might afford. Islamic art implies certain forms of drawn-out attention and subjective contemplation, which in turn are in a certain way suggested by the work. This is why non-figurative Islamic art often yields unsatisfying conclusions for those who, like Eva Baer (1998), deploy iconographic interpretations and are more amenable to phenomenological approaches. Valerie Gonzales’ (2001) interpretation of the Hall of Kings at the Alhambra shows how Islamic architecture lends itself to existential, embodied, and performative experiences more than to iconic analysis. While other art historians have interpreted the Comares Hall of the Alhambra as a literalization of its inscriptions about seven heavens, Gonzales “experiences” the hall phenomenologically: decoration leads the eyes up to the star-studded dome, the dome as a body of potential metaphors, to be explicated subjectively. Such a work invites a performative, embodied approach.
Westward travels of Islamic aesthetics
By the mid-nineteenth century, the path to Granada and beyond was heavily trodden by Orientalist pilgrims. In 1856, the British design reformer Owen Jones published his pattern book The Grammar of Ornament, which included 454 Islamic motifs, including a chapter on the Alhambra (Sweetman 1987, 175). This and other pattern books were read avidly by artists, architects, and designers (both professional and amateur) and their motifs were applied widely, together with Jones’ propositions on ornament derived from his study of “Moresque” patterns. Jones noted, for example, the patterns’ equilibrium whereby “the tendency of the eye to run in any one direction is countered by lines going in another, so that ‘wherever the eye strikes ... it is inclined to dwell” (Jones as quoted in Sweetman, 176). Jones’ description of aesthetic pleasure strongly echo Al-Jurjani’s, and Jones’ pattern books made it easy for artists to adapt the playful and fascinating patterns of Islamic art to their own projects.
Both art nouveau and straightforwardly Orientalist architecture dealt with modernization by seeking inspiration from beyond Europe. As John Sweetman (1987) details, world’s fairs, train stations, and the architectural follies of rich clients featured ‘Alhambresque’ ornament. The life force of the abstract line twined into the biomorphic forms of Jugendstil and art nouveau architecture and design. Architects turned to Islamic models for the new iron and glass buildings of the industrial age, the train station and the shopping arcade (Sweetman, 119-127). William Morris, leader of the British Arts and Crafts movement, incorporated these and other Islamic patterns into his designs for textiles and wallpaper. Morris supported the South Kensington Museum in its acquisition of the famous carpet from the shrine of Sheikh Safi at Ardabil. This museum, which became the Victoria and Albert Museum, would be the model for the Vienna Museum of Art and Industry where Alois Riegl, art historian and curator of textiles, developed his theory of the intercultural transfer of plastic qualities.
A complex carpet of Eastern Iranian or Indian origin appears in several of the paintings of John Singer Sargent, literally underlying the tendency toward abstraction in this painter’s work. Sargent loved this carpet, calling it “more beautiful than any painting” (as quoted in Sweetman, 1987, 227). He often tried to imitate its complexity in his paintings and lamented having to obscure it with his model: “Whenever I put my model on it, she covered something infinitely more beautiful than herself, so I gave up [trying to incorporate the pattern of the rug] and merely did a sort of map of the carpet for the pattern” (ibid).
Islamic art was one of the levers that European artists applied to naturalism in order to release abstraction. The development of the internal faculties in Islamic aesthetics proved influential to another current of late 19th century art. Paul Gauguin lent Georges Seurat a so-called “Turkish painter’s manual” by the Turkish poet Sünbülzade Vehbi. This manual advised to paint from memory, rather than from what is visibly present, invoking the authority of the Islamic visual tradition that appeals to the imagination (Necipoglu 1995, 210). Vehbi’s writings enjoin the poet to draw inspiration from the form’s artifice: “First he should be skilled in signification’s art that he might know the delicate, hidden point of poetry’s meaning. / Metaphor and metonymy, the real and the figurative flow endlessly through the riverbed of poetry. / Without knowing the most lovely form of a simile’s aspect, to what shall the heart-adorning face of poetry be compared?” (Vehbi, n.d.)
Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and other modern painters incorporated the abstract line of the arabesque into the surfaces of their canvases, liberating the abstract line from its subservient role to figural representation. And thus the abstract line moved from Baghdad to Paris, a stowaway in rugs and a discreet mimic in figurative canvases, until it could move freely again.
A tension between embodiment and transcendence describes the modern painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the art of Islam with its embodied subject contemplating the infinite. They hold in common a light conception of the subject, as something that is meant to be dissolved and unwound, much as haptic surfaces dissolve our eyes’ focus and the process of following abstract lines unravel our subjectivity like a ball of yarn. Like figure and ground alternating into each other, they play with the tension of immanence and transcendence in the fabric of an embodied subjectivity.
1 Not without internal differences: Ontological differences between the unknowable universe of the ‘Ashari atomists and the interconnected emanationism of the Greek-influenced falsafa, as well as differences between Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi beliefs, informed religious and state policy, and in turn art and aesthetics. The Islamic engine that powered European experiments in abstraction was not a primitive and unreflected decorative sense but a self-sufficient art system. Whether direct relations existed between aesthetic thought and artistic practice in classical Islam is hotly debated by art historians. I join those who argue that Islamic art absorbed and informed aesthetic and theological reflection.
2 I mention these three caliphates that were centers of power and learning, and the centuries of their prime: the Abbasid caliphate, which founded the new city of Baghdad and ruled there from 749 to 1258; the Fatimids of Cairo, 909-1171; and the Umayyads of Spain, 756-1031. They are among many others whose influence and competition extended across the Islamic world.
3 See the richly sensuous The Thousand and One Nights. This book is based on stories translated from Pahlavi into Arabic in the early centuries of Islam and gradually collected in Baghdad in the tenth and twelfth centuries.
4 The emphasis on performativity in worship also results from the rejection of reason in favor of faith in the influential writings of Abu’l Hasan Al-Ashari (d. 935) and Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali (1058-1111).
5 It’s important not to lump all European art into the model of Renaissance perspective, for there are many kinds of embodied perception solicited by works of different periods. Baroque art, for example, certainly can’t be said to elicit a distanced and disembodied spectatorship; indeed Necipoglu (1995) compares the overwhelming yet subjective effect of Baroque art with that of Sunni architecture of the classical period.