Matthew Vollgraff, *18

Department of German

 The Science of Expression: Ausdruckskunde and Bodily Knowledge in German Modernist Culture (2019)



From the late 1870s to the early 1930s, an interdisciplinary field named Ausdruckskunde flourished throughout German-speaking Europe. Its proponents analyzed the expressive movements of both human and nonhuman bodies as a medium of nondiscursive knowledge—whether psychological, aesthetic, historical, or all at once. Until now the full interdisciplinary scope of this “science of expression” has largely escaped scholarly notice; yet as this dissertation argues, the long-neglected history of Ausdruckskunde has profound implications for the way we understand the interrelations of art and science in German modernity. The spread of evolutionary anthropology, physiological aesthetics and new media technologies during this turbulent period exacerbated the problematic status of somatic expression, a phenomenon which then as now directly challenges oppositions between inner and outer, mind and matter, individual and social, and natural and artificial. Ausdruckskunde arose in response to these virulent uncertainties, proposing a heterogenous epistemology of bodily gesture that unsettled more established ways of knowing in both the natural and the human sciences.

Over eight chapters examining the work of figures like Charles Darwin, Wilhelm Wundt, August Schmarsow, Aby Warburg, Ludwig Klages, Sergei Eisenstein, Max Scheler and Helmuth Plessner, I demonstrate how the “terra incognita” of expressive movement provoked a number of unprecedented close encounters and collaborations between far-flung methods and practices. The more they tried to resolve the problem of expression, I argue, the more these artists, scientists and scholars were compelled to displace the logic of individual sciences and produce new connections between them. Transgressing disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of a more labile bodily knowledge, the itinerant science of expression remapped the relationships between nature and culture, art and language, memory and history, and human and nonhuman life in ways that have become more pertinent today than ever before.

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