Political Magnetism

Von Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Von Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Police on Their Knees

In 2020, cities in the US saw actions by members of the police who performed a joint, synchronised kneel to make a statement against racist violence. The gesture intended to commemorate the death of US citizen George Floyd, who was agonisingly suffocated on the ground under a police officer’s knee during an arrest. As a form of mute protest, the gesture had already been displayed at sporting events and other public occasions; however, because political expressions are officially unwelcomed in such contexts, there was fierce controversy, fueled by the divisive polemics of then-president Donald Trump. Consequently, the actions of the police were seen as taking a side and express responsibility and a sense of guilt among civil servants. In addition, kneeling has a long pictorial tradition as an anti-racist symbol: Josiah Wedgwood’s ceramic medallion, which depicts a man on his knees and in chains, encircled by the legend “Am I not a man and a brother?,” was designed and widely copied at the end of the 1780s as a badge against slavery.

The gesture of humility shown by the US police met with media attention. The moment uniformed groups bend their knees, sometimes in the shape of a phalanx, was disseminated in countless shots on social media. Depending on one’s perspective, the images addressed their audience in different ways. Some of them revealed a choreography or at least a deliberately chosen vantage point to capture the silent scene. They also showed how deeply interwoven politics and aesthetics are. 

The pictures raise systemic questions: who initiates a joint action and for what purpose, who mobilises the crowd for a protest march, or walks forward with the banner? Who gives the first impulse to La ola in a stadium? What situation or condition turns a crowd into a critical mass or an intelligent swarm? What personnel is particularly entitled to act in such a context, or has the power to make others follow them? And how do they look? This leads again to the representational question of whether collective movements are staged as events or turned into them by media.

These questions would be answered differently by art historians, sociologists, psychologists, or philosophers; but they all point to an energetic core that will be referred to here as political magnetism. Under this title, a series of events has been convened since April 2020 together with students of the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG). It varies and plays with an eighteenth-century expression which has become commonly known in English as “animal magnetism,” and it comes from an era that considered itself a time of Enlightenment, a time in need of light. It was also a period in which “the crowd” became an artistic subject in its own right.[1]


Hidden Forces 

In 1734, Franz Anton Mesmer, who would go on to enjoy a Europe-wide career as a physician, was born near Lake Constance in Baden-Württemberg. He spent his youth and early study years in the southwest region before leaving for Vienna where he earned a doctorate in medicine, but also the dubious reputation of a faith healer with a growing clientele and unusual treatments. Magnetism and electricity were a fashionable topic and a popular attraction of public salons, so Mesmer intended to re-adjust people’s out-of-balance bodily forces with the help of magnetic metal constructions. However, he realised that his cures, which included hypnotic incantations and massages, had a greater effect on the public than the treatment with magnets as such, and he decided to call the force behind this interpersonal attraction “animal magnetism,” a term that continues to be associated with his name. His hypnotic enchantments have even found their way into the verb to mesmerise which is uncommon in German but commonplace in English.

 In her manifesto on women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft referred to the “hocus pocus tricks” and “fashionable deceptions, practiced by the whole tribe of magnetisers” who roamed about her homeland.[2] Rejected by experts, Mesmer moved on, this time to Paris, where he became the talk of the town because of alleged healings and ecstasies reminiscent of exorcist practices. The fact that ladies flocked in large numbers to Mesmer’s massages did not help to reduce speculation about his immoral debauchery. A 1994 biopic, starring Alan Rickman as Mesmer, portrays the doctor as a heartthrob and misunderstood genius (more likely to rival a Mozart or Freud) while mediocre scholars envy his success.

Regardless of his medical dubiousness, Mesmer can be seen today as a key figure of his era. While the doctrine of animal magnetism as such is quackery, it could claim plausibility in the eighteenth century as a mix of different approaches and practices. The idea of physical attraction was known from ancient atomism and from the alchemical parallel of material interaction and human love.[3] In Mesmer’s own time, and in his medical dissertation, the medieval conviction prevailed that diseases of the human body reveal disharmonies within the macrocosmic order. And in Mesmer’s new homeland of France the tradition of healing by touch was still practiced by the French royalty.[4]

There are similarities between the life of Mesmer and Freud, not only in terms of major stations, but also regarding the relationship of the male physician to a female clientele. The demand for Mesmer’s treatments gives us clues to the new metropolitan life and a willingness of people to imagine themselves in a nervous state. Based on Mesmer’s success, the US historian Robert Darnton argued that mesmerism may have played a considerable political role.[5] For Mesmer appears in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, and the writings of revolutionaries deal explicitly with his animal magnetism, most notably the jurist Nicholas Bergasse (1750–1830), who published Mesmer’s writings. Formulated against the backdrop of growing student protests in the late 1960s and an example of “New Historicism,” Darnton’s reading of Mesmer posed the question of what weight should be given to texts that are now considered apocryphal but had a wide resonance in their time. 


The Human Animal

In Mesmer’s time, the absolutist idea of the state was ubiquitous throughout Europe. It was based on the assumption that the absolute ruler could overcome political conflict and civil war because he or she was exempt from legislation and thus independent (this would later become a prerequisite for the theory of division of power). In Thomas Hobbes’s treatise Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, first published in 1651, the absolute prince is conceived and depicted as a male, cellular super-body the chest of which is composed of a plethora of anonymous, uniform and faceless individuals. The human as zóon polítikon here becomes part of a larger hierarchical commonwealth; the collective political body and its members follow the cosmic trajectories of state reason. 

Hobbes’s contemporaries were also fascinated by the bee as a natural symbol for this alignment of forces in a perfectly hierarchical system: In the monument to Ferdinand I in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence, from around 1600, we find a bronze plate showing a concentric swarm that leaves no doubt about the new social order. Unfortunately, it suggested that the head of the bee state was male.

The political animal continued to live on in many ways.[6] In Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the hunt of the sea animal stands for the struggle of the human against dark forces and the Leviathan, and for the threat of wild determination and leadership dragging a collective down to its doom. In contemporary cartography, many-armed octopuses were assumed to embrace the world economy with a firm grip.[7] In the following century, horde behavior and alpha animals provided examples for mass psychology from Sigmund Freud to Elias Canetti and supposedly natural prototypes legitimising the leader state. Max Weber’s concept of “charismatic rule” (1919) answered the sociological questions of why certain political leaders or religious gurus can bind opposing forces by their mere appearance or why collectives are often taken over by auratic leaders and aggressive egos. And during the Cold War, “hawks” and “wolves” lived on as symbols of political aggression, while flocks of fish or birds or the ant state began to represent the distributed or bottom-up intelligence of animated, complex systems. Whenever a group behavior is described as a “movement” or “direction”, as a front or a fraction, there are visual metaphors making complex processes or deeper currents imaginable: metaphors of attraction and repulsion, of mutual elevation or subjugation. 

In his artistic work, Joseph Beuys (1921–86), who like Mesmer was often discredited as a charlatan, attempted to detect such “directional forces of a new society” (Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft) that represent social change as they follow its directions like a compass needle. His approach was emblematic of a “green,” post-materialist political theory and led him to the concept of “social plasticity” (soziale Plastik) that once more raised the question of who supplies and who receives the shaping impulses in a collective. His Richtkräfte can appear in digital communication as flash mobs and shitstorms, and even liberal or “liquid” societies are based on infrastructures, constraints, and paths, which develop into formations, directions, and hierarchies.

Even if the concept of social plasticity is questioned today because of its claim to total societal transformation, there can be no doubt that people are brought together or driven apart, by mental energies or situational forces that align or divide them, be it in ritual or in sport, dance or music.[8] Calendars, architectures, seating arrangements transcend and solidify the agglutinations of social life. Military parades are to demonstrate the perfect orientation and symmetrisation of the collectivised body with clockwork-like precision and a drill down to the movement of the soldiers’ eyeballs. 

Di Rijksmuseum -, CC0,

Di Rijksmuseum -, CC0,


Enlightenment and Obfuscation 

This is where iconology comes into play: surprisingly often, images of insurrection and mass protest imitate triumphant, pyramidal, or wedge-shaped formations, and reveal traditional patterns of apotheosis, heroism, and allegiance. Such migrations of forms motivated a famous mapping project by the art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929), titled Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, which has enjoyed increasing attention in recent years and was shown as part an internationally acclaimed exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin in 2020. The aim of Warburg’s research was to take images as vehicles of a psycho-energetic relationship between the old and the new world, and in this way make visible the afterlife of archaic energies in modernity.

Warburg had reproductions of artworks mounted in large numbers on movable panels. Through reproduction, the contents of the images were deliberately leveled and brought into a comparable format, intended to serve as a research documentation and for lectures. For a time, they were displayed in the reading room of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek in Hamburg. The reading room itself, built in 1926, was based on a baroque motif of an ellipse that can be found in a cosmological diagram of the Nouveaux principes de physique, a book of Mesmer’s close French adherer Jean-Louis Carra.[9] The architecture was meant to represent the bipolar order of classical culture and technical progress, Dionysian darkness and Apollonian light. It can also be read as a symbol of polarisation in terms of political parties and ideologies through the dialectic of progress.[10] “Political magnetism” can cover such dynamic moments of oscillation or reversed polarity, in which individuals resonate the masses and vice versa. Indeed, Warburg himself spoke of “sociological energetics.” His own time was all about electromagnetism, artificial lighting, radio and telephone, and cinema projections. 

His reflections on the night sides of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were caught up with by reality. After his library left Hamburg in the wake of the Nazi seizure of power and migrated to London where it became the Warburg Institute, the British historian Frances A. Yates (1899–1981) studied there the significance of Freemasonry and esotericism for scientists like Isaac Newton. Although a generation older than Robert Darnton, her book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment continued in her own way the thought of the younger US colleague.[11]


Patterns of Power

Warburg’s pinboard covered with photos and news extracts in a loose arrangement is a well-known motif from detective stories. But is it also an established tool in art history. So it was not only due to online teaching under COVID-19 conditions that the members of the seminar on political magnetism chose to employ a collaborative online board to collect and connect images, films, web pages, and manuscripts for their joint research and as conceptual tool. The students designed prototypes for a brochure, diagrammatic means for compository analysis, and a short movie with found footage and newly composed sound. 

In the course of the collection, however, the students also noticed that large amounts of the material were biased toward and mirrored a Western gaze. The press footage and social media content they worked with was clearly pre-selected and filtered out by dominant technical infrastructures, by editorial processes and their underlying economic interests and psychological principles. This observation could be extended back to Warburg’s project, which follows the paths of an East–West exchange and largely ignores the Global South, with the industrialised world posited as its destination. The seminar thus made apparent that the examination of images and the question of their origins are closely connected and need to be redirected. The possibilities of a digital, multimedia tool not only revealed technical limitations of the 1920s Mnemosyne atlas, but also its open conceptual challenges. 

As in every exhibition or cinematic montage, the way that images are grouped, scaled, or cropped, or even combined with words, makes a difference, highlighting adjacencies or oppositions, suggesting relations and causalities. Does the formal similarity of two parliament buildings mean that they serve similar political systems? What kind of story is told when Bernie Boston’s or Patrick Riboud’s photographs of “flower power” protests from 1969 appear alongside footage of the recent storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.? When dance routines from pop stars like Beyoncé, Shakira, or Dua Lipa derive from uniform gestures that rotate around the queen bee—do they therefore demonstrate the freedom of bodily control, or rather the pleasure of being absorbed by the collective? It may be logical to compare their similarities with baroque sun ballets or Oskar Schlemmer’s geometric dances. But is it legitimate to equate human crowds with metal particles or animal swarms; or to reduce the complexity of situations to recurrent iconographic patterns? And if yes, what would we learn from it?

Such problems were addressed by Robert Darnton himself, half a century after the appearance of his book, in a virtual “studio visit” to the seminar on June 11, 2021. His conversation with students of HfG made clear that design questions are at the same time questions of historiography and political theory, and that an approach like Warburg’s atlas or Darnton’s study on medicine and revolution asks for new directions and projects of research when transplanted into new environments of design. 

The idea of adopting Mesmer’s term of animal magnetism for visual explorations has not remained a conceptual exercise in the ivory chamber of academia, but has acquired unexpected topicality in times of pandemic and social distancing. Besides the fundamental importance of attraction vs repulsion, it is the invisibility of social forces that recharges imagination. In technological visions as well as in conspiracy theories, mesmerism persists in the stipulated power of cell phone radiation as a means of mind control and optimisation. This power over people is an imaginary problem not only in terms of iconographies and choreographies, or of state apparatuses and the means of production, but also in terms of social complexity and its analysis. Who looks and who is looked at? Who is the subject of a political iconology, and what does the “subject” mean in such a context? Obviously, there is a strong magnetic field that connects and divides the interdisciplinary work of art history, visual culture and communication, political theory, and media studies. 

[1] Wolfgang Kemp, “Das Bild der Menge (1789-1830),” Städel-Jahrbuch, vol. 4, (1973): pp. 249–70.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Boston, MA.: Thomas & Andrews, 1792, p. 316f. The US edition that appeared the same year is available at [Dec 2021]. For the discovery and history of magnetism see Nils Röller, Magnetismus. Eine Geschichte der Orientierung, Munich / Paderborn: Fink, 2010.

[3] Cf. Marie-Luise Angerer, “Virtual Sex and Other Metamorphoses,” in: Desire After Affect, trans. Nicholas Grindell, London; New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp. 71–86; the chapter refers to Luciana Parisi’s discussion of atomism in Abstract Sex. Philosophy, Bio-Technology and the Mutations of Desire, London; New York: Continuum, 2004.

[4] Marc Bloch, Les Rois thaumaturges, Strasbourg: Istra, 1924 (engl. The Royal Touch. Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973). 

[5] Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

[6] Anne von der Heiden, Joseph Vogl, eds., Politische Zoologie, Zurich; Berlin: Diaphanes, 2007.

[7] For a selection of examples see e.g., Allison Meier, “The Octopus, a Motif of Evil in Historical Propaganda Maps,” Hyperallergic, May 8, 2017, [Dec 2021].

[8] Cf. Exh. Cat. Bewegtes Leben. Körpertechniken in der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. Rebekka von Mallinckrodt, Wolfenbüttel: Herzog-August-Bibliothek, 2008.

[9] Jean-Louis Carra, Nouveaux principes de physique, ornés de planches, Paris: Morin / Hamburg: Virchaux, 1781, plate 1 (“Méchanisme universel”).

[10] Bernhard Siegert, Passage des Digitalen. Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900, Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose, 2003.

[11] Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, London: Paladin, 1975.

Experimental Videowork by Isabelle Konrad and Philippe Mainz, developed as part of the seminar Political Magnetism, 2021, with Prof. Bruhn.

About the author

Matthias Bruhn

Published on 2022-01-20 09:00