Organising “Mnemosyne,” the Warburg Institute’s Fourth Postgraduate Symposium
Written by Katerina Sarafidou
On 4 - 5 May 2023, the postgraduate symposium “Mnemosyne: Forgetting, Remembering and Rediscovering Classical Antiquity” will take place at Senate House, University of London. Organised and hosted by the Warburg Institute in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Studies, this two-day, in-person event will examine how antiquity has been shaped and memorialized by artists, poets, scholars, collectors, psychologists and occultists in later periods and across a range of cultural contexts.
In this blog post, Warburg PhD student and co-organiser of the conference, Katerina Sarafidou, gives us a glimpse into some of the themes of the programme and what we can expect across the two days.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the conference?
The notion of Mnemosyne is very much at the heart of the Warburg Institute. The word is a reminder of sorts that it is not only an Institute for art history or for intellectual history, but it stands for cultural memory itself – its survival and transmission across all arts and sciences. As organisers of this conference, George, Rita, Daniel, Elisa, Giuseppe, and I, have many and varied research interests, but we found that this theme provides an underlying unity for all of our projects. It is a contextual link and a point of dialogue across all ideas and forms of cultural expression that we engage in, whether they are artistic, intellectual, psychological, or geared towards preservation and transmission. In a way, it is an invitation to explore the role of collective memory in the tangible and intangible social functions of various arts and practices. As we were also very keen to hear from other researchers around the world on how they understand and work with these themes, we kept the topic deliberately broad to capture the interdisciplinary nature of our interests – we found it challenging to select the speakers as we received so many fascinating submissions!
How does the topic of the conference relate to your wider research interests?
When I first came across Aby Warburg’s work, I was struck by the way he described the aims of his library. He referred to it as “a collection of documents relating to the psychology of human expression.” He envisaged his library as serving to answer the question of how human and imagistic expressions arise in the first place, the emotions and reasons (conscious or unconscious) under which they are stored in the archives of memory, and the laws that govern their formation and re-emergence. He sketched out two different ways human beings tend to respond to memory images: either instinctively, resulting in a religious embodiment of causes; or consciously, resulting in detachment through naming.
My thesis is titled ‘The Descent into the Hell of Self Knowledge: The History of an Idea, Image and Method.’ It focuses on C.G. Jung’s Red Book, and circles around those two ways of responding to and engaging with collective images in the individual psyche and in society. I am interested in the interplay between memory and imagination, and the role of this interplay in shaping human lives, historically and culturally situated. I think there is something very creative and fundamental to the ways in which memory and imagination (both cognitive functions), come together to somehow assemble the elements of human experience not only to sustain subjective identities, but also to create future ones. Memory, embodied in the human body and mind, alongside imagination - an essential element of creative action - can produce a linking narrative between the past and future, between experiences of fragmentation and experiences of coherence.
Through Jung’s Red Book, I am tracing a historical thread across some of these subjective memories, ideas, methods, and practices that make use of both an instinctive, spontaneous response to memory images, as well as a detached shaping and cultivation of them. I focus on the ways in which they are historically and culturally contingent, their endurance across long periods of time, how they ground us within social, physical, and emotional worlds; how they provide a sense of coherence and continuity in the understanding of our historical past, and a sense of destiny for our future.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered?
I would say that the first difficulty we encountered was articulating a unifying theme and a set of aims that could encompass the range of our research interests in a way that is coherent, recognisable and appealing to other researchers from various disciplines. Seeing the quality of submissions, I like to think that we succeeded on that front. Selecting the presenters was the second main difficulty purely due to the number and high standard of papers that were submitted. As co-organisers we worked together very smoothly, so I hope we got that part right too. George has been the driving force behind the organisation of the conference. We were also very lucky to have Chris’s keen eye for style who designed our flyer, and Rita’s excellent web-skills, both of which resulted in a very elegant visual representation of the conference, in my view.
The Warburg Institute and the Institute of Classical Studies were also very encouraging and we were grateful to be able to rely on the support of Jon Millington and Lucy Nicholas. They anticipated issues and provided advice and options for some of the more practical and institutional matters – including the budget! The 'Warburg Renaissance' meant that we could not host the event at the Institute, but Senate House is a great and spacious alternative.
Who might be interested in the programme, and what can we expect from the day?
This is a fascinating and expanding area of research that cuts across many disciplines. Anyone in the fields of art history, intellectual history, cultural history, psychoanalysis, Renaissance studies, philosophy, classical studies, literary studies, museum/heritage studies, religious studies, to name a few, would find it an enriching experience and a real opportunity for intellectual exchange and networking. Students are also encouraged to attend: the presentations cover a wide range of topics that highlight the rediscovery of Classical Antiquity through many different lenses and ways of cultural expression.
Across the two days, we have three different panels comprising two sessions each – the first panel focuses on sites of preservation and transmission, the second on psychological and religious narratives, and the third on arts and heritage. We have presentations from across the UK, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the US and Brazil. I am particularly looking forward to the keynote speech by Professor Constanze Güthenke, Professor of Greek Literature at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, on “The Continuous Weft: Memory, Scholarship and Community,” which closes the symposium and aptly encapsulates the rationale and vision behind the event. There is plenty of time for questions and discussion built into the programme and, as it is an in-person conference, everyone is warmly invited to stay behind at the end for some wine, nibbles, and no-doubt animated conversations. I hope we will see many people there.
Katerina Sarafidou is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute working on C.G. Jung’s Red Book. She is an honorary member of the British Jungian Analytic Association and the current Head of Research of the MSc Psychodynamics of Human Development, a postgraduate research programme run by Birkbeck College, University of London, and the British Psychotherapy Foundation. She is one of the three founders of The Circle of Analytical Psychology, an educational initiative which offers a 2-year study on Jung’s Liber Novus to analysts and psychotherapists.
1 Gombrich, E.H. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, with a Memoir of the History of the Library by R Saxl. 1970, Warburg Institute, p.222.