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Laurel Waycott, University of California San Francisco

Bilderfahrzeuge Lecture Series: "Pattern Recognition"

Prof. Laurel Waycott (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of California San Francisco) 'Pattern Recognition in a Pre-Digital Age: Wallpaper, Crystals, and the Science of Symmetry, 1880–1930'

The concept of pattern recognition is central to our modern conception of scientific practice, but this was not always the case. How did pattern, an aesthetic concept from the world of craft, come to be a tool in the creation of knowledge? In this talk, I explore how wallpaper—a ubiquitous feature of Western interiors in the late nineteenth century—shaped the science of symmetry, and the nascent practice of X-ray crystallography. By investigating the relationship between aesthetics and science, this talk demonstrates how culturally specific notions of beauty have the power to shape the construction of knowledge. 


This annual lecture series is organised by the international research project Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology. The term “pattern recognition” owes its ubiquity across a wide range of sciences to advances in fields like computer programming, statistics and cybernetics after the Second World War. Yet the basic process of ordering raw data or visual images into identifiable structures has existed for much longer, also within traditionally humanistic contexts. Aby Warburg’s multidirectional and nonlinear science of images (Bildwissenschaft) began with the research of patterns and ‘pathos formulas’ in the historical record of European and Near Eastern art. Today, as our interactions with images are increasingly shaped by nonhuman intelligences, the practice of visual pattern recognition offers new ways of historicizing the changing relationships between psychology and technology, intuition and automation, cognition and control. This lecture series explores how pattern recognition has functioned and continues to function as a distinct modality of image-based knowledge production, from the study of global ornaments in the nineteenth century to digital surveillance and profiling in the twenty-first. 

image: From F. M. Jaeger, Lectures on the Principles of Symmetry and its Application in All Natural Sciences, 1917 (archive.org)