a review by Julian Hou
Robertson begins Thinking Space by discussing several rooms: Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Johannes Kepler’s room for optical experiments, Thomas Carlyle’s fictive study, Aby Warburg’s elliptical reading room – each with an aperture, a table, and a book – various configurations to form an instrument for research and to guide the shape of research. She then introduces her own room, a place where she describes having arrived at this body of research through an elliptical path.
Thinking Space is about the ellipse as a geometry that produces sites of thinking by way of its irregular focus. The text embodies this exploration, showing how research and thinking can be expressed without proceeding toward unification or closure. The ellipse holds for her the “charge of a distance, a tension.” Robertson’s text could be thought of as a provocation of geometrical structure as a producer of affect. Geometry is undoubtedly one of the most utilitarian forms of mathematics, specifically as it relates to the development and modeling of physical systems and optics. But this is not to say that a specific geometry like the ellipse cannot produce different configurations of possibilities in multiple fields of thought. Rather than digging up an ignored historical lineage, Robertson focuses on a geometry that has historically produced a scattered affect across numerous fields of research. Intoxicating in structure, Thinking Space is a constant elliptical movement through the research of various figures of history that she connects to the ellipse. At times the text seems to echo itself by returning to similar ideas through different forms, or through the mis-en-abyme, as if the reader and writer are both implicated in this structure of imperfect reflections.
Johannes Kepler’s original discovery and shift, from Tycho Brahe’s circular orbit to the elliptical orbit, is here thought to be a cognitive transformation toward irregularity as a site for thinking. Robertson investigates the profound impact that this movement had on the research concepts of art historian Aby Warburg and on the production of a mythology of the romantic hero by Thomas Carlyle. Warburg produces a literal manifestation of this site of thinking in his “traffic island of the thoughtful,” which is an elliptical reading room constructed in Hamburg, 1926. Within this library, Warburg constructed his Mnemosyne Atlas – a series of panels upon which a montage of various art-historical images, maps, and charts are affixed. The improvisational staging of these images in proximity produces a charge rather than a smooth connection, what Robertson calls “a proposition of knowledge in flux.” For Carlyle, Kepler’s ellipse holds a symbolic political potential if governance is thought as a practice which “is always approaching and never arrived.” These are among the many ideas of the text that show how Kepler’s original discovery was expanded upon in multiple permutations throughout history. Robertson’s text proposes the possibility of geometry as not only structuring thought, but also directing it toward a looseness – a hanging together of thoughts in an irregular movement around multiple foci.