Chart­ing man’s moder­nity Fritz Kahn’s ho­muncu­lar body


When you are felled by chest con­ges­tion and seek a rem­edy, chances are your mind con­jures a gag­gle of blobby lit­tle green men who rep­re­sent mu­cus and might serve as spokes­peo­ple for the de­con­ges­tant Mucinex. The hideous yet adorable crea­tures ap­pear in tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials as some­thing like fren­e­mies of the sick — un­wanted guests who set up camp in your body and also ex­plain your ill­ness to you in grav­elly Team­ster voices. It might be more ac­cu­rate to call these an­i­mated char­ac­ters “spokes-ho­mun­culi.” Ho­mun­culi is the plu­ral of ho­muncu­lus, which is a big word for any very small hu­manoid crea­ture, and artis­tic ren­der­ings of such be­ings have his­tor­i­cally made their way into sci­en­tific and med­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions.

Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a Ger­man Jewish physi­cian and pop­u­lar sci­ence writer, em­braced the metaphor of the ho­muncu­lus as an ed­u­ca­tional and artis­tic tool. Kahn pro­duced nu­mer­ous pam­phlets and books filled with im­ages that de­pict the body as a mech­a­nized fac­tory. His ideas and long­stand­ing in­flu­ence on de­sign and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal mar­ket­ing con­tinue to per­vade vis­ual cul­ture. Kahn’s pro­jec­tions in­flu­enced in­struc­tional film­strips about hy­giene and dis­ease made for school­child­ren and mil­i­tary re­cruits dur­ing the mid­dle part of the 20th cen­tury, as well as mod­ern-day in­fo­graph­ics and in­ter­net memes. Michael Sap­pol, a fel­low at the Swedish Col­legium for Ad­vanced Study in Upp­sala, ad­dresses Khan’s legacy from an his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal point of view in the re­cent book Body Mod­ern: Fritz Kahn, Sci­en­tific Il­lus­tra­tion, and the Ho­muncu­lar Sub­ject, pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Press.

Kahn was born in Halle an der Saale, Ger­many, to mother Hed­wig and fa­ther Arthur, a doc­tor and au­thor. The fam­ily lived in Hobo­ken, New Jer­sey, and then Man­hat­tan when Kahn was young, but in 1895 he re­turned to Ger­many with his mother. Kahn stud­ied medicine at the Univer­sity of Ber­lin, and from 1914 to 1922 he worked as a sur­geon, gy­ne­col­o­gist, and ob­stet­ri­cal aide at a clinic; he served as a medic in World War I. In the 1930s he moved to Pales­tine and later to France, but when World War II broke out he was in­terred there as an en­emy alien. Once re­leased, he made his way back to Man­hat­tan by way of Spain and Por­tu­gal. “Kahn was a di­as­poric Jew,” Sap­pol writes. “He grew up in Ger­many and the United States; he lived more than half his life out­side Ger­many. Like ev­ery mem­ber of the Jewish di­as­pora, he faced in two di­rec­tions … He thought of him­self as the is­sue of an an­cient race and a faith­ful up­holder of its an­cient tra­di­tions. Yet in his med­i­cal and sci­en­tific writ­ings, he was a tire­less ex­po­nent of everything mod­ern.”

Sap­pol dis­tin­guishes be­tween mod­ernists as mod­ern­iz­ers and mod­ern­iz­ers who were not nec­es­sar­ily mod­ernists. Kahn is more of a mod­ern­izer, in­tent on help­ing the masses understand sci­en­tific ad­vance­ment and knowl­edge. He is not a mod­ernist, as his tone tended to be in­con­sis­tent, and he of­ten re­lied on old-fash­ioned aes­thet­ics to con­vey space-age ideas that would be nearly un­read­able to to­day’s au­di­ences. In Kahn’s schemat­ics, mus­cles, nerve bun­dles, di­ges­tive pro­cesses, and other con­cepts are pro­jected out­side of the body into a neg­a­tive space, or into the sto­ries of a build­ing, their func­tions ex­plained in meaty cap­tions (which are not trans­lated from the Ger­man in Body Mod­ern). With­out cap­tions, Sap­pol main­tains, they are more akin to works of art than use­ful sci­en­tific il­lus­tra­tions.

Though he is of­ten as­sumed to have cre­ated all im­ages that came out un­der his name, Kahn him­self was not an artist but an idea man who had il­lus­tra­tors and de­sign­ers carry out his con­cepts. He rarely gave them any credit. Sap­pol fo­cuses on this as­pect of his busi­ness prac­tices in some de­tail, em­pha­siz­ing that there were many other artists, some of whom he names and some of whom are lost to his­tory, whose work falls un­der the Kahn um­brella. “In ex­ile (and against the Nazi ex­pro­pri­a­tion of his im­ages), Kahn had a vested in­ter­est in as­sert­ing his in­tel­lec­tual au­thor­ship and prop­erty rights,” Sap­pol writes. “Trans­planted to Amer­ica, he needed to be rec­og­nized as the ‘gifted in­ven­tor’ ... of the con­cep­tual sci­en­tific im­age and the cus­to­dian of the pop­u­lar med­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.” Kahn’s most fa­mous il­lus­tra­tion, Der Men­sch als

In­dus­triepalast (Man as In­dus­trial Palace), which shows a cut-away of a hu­man body in pro­file, pop­u­lated by ho­mun­culi work­ing the var­i­ous sys­tems like fac­tory em­ploy­ees, was ac­tu­ally a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Fritz Schüler, who was never cred­ited. It first ap­peared in Kahn’s book Das Leben des Men­schen 3, pub­lished in 1926. When con­sid­er­ing the body as a col­lec­tion of me­chan­i­cal en­ti­ties run­ning on the la­bor of lit­tle men, and in light of the un­cred­ited artists who toiled for long hours on some­one else’s ideas, it is easy to com­pare these con­cepts to the vi­sion of a 21stcen­tury open-plan tech startup filled with un­der­paid millennials cod­ing late into the night. In this way,

Der Men­sch is both pre­ciously vin­tage and a time­less fan­tasy of worker pro­duc­tiv­ity that speaks in equal mea­sure to cap­i­tal­ism or com­mu­nism. At the time,

Der Men­sch spoke strongly to the eu­genic im­pulses of

Fritz Kahn’s most fa­mous il­lus­tra­tion shows a cut­away of a hu­man body in pro­file, pop­u­lated by ho­mun­culi work­ing the var­i­ous sys­tems like fac­tory em­ploy­ees.

Nazi so­cial en­gi­neer­ing, which may be why the Nazis ap­pro­pri­ated many of Kahn’s im­ages — af­ter he had left Ger­many — to use in their own pro­pa­ganda as they aligned them­selves with mod­ernism in ser­vice of their brand of eu­gen­ics. Un­der the di­rec­tion of the Nazi regime, Franckh’she Ver­lagshand­lung (known as Franckh), the im­print re­spon­si­ble for many of Kahn’s books, took the Ger­man rights to Kahn’s words and im­ages and re­tained pos­ses­sion of all original art­work. Over the years, im­ages pro­duced by Kahn and his artists have been so widely dis­trib­uted, re­pro­duced, and rein­ter­preted around the world that his in­flu­ence shows up ev­ery­where from vi­ta­min com­mer­cials to Tom & Jerry car­toons — re­ally, any­where a vis­ual metaphor is needed to ex­plain the in­ner work­ings of man.

Body Mod­ern is densely aca­demic yet provoca­tive enough for a lay per­son to ex­tract some mean­ing, as Sap­pol moves flu­idly from ex­plo­rations of moder­nity to Kahn’s bi­og­ra­phy, to artis­tic and so­cial cri­tique, and fi­nally to a med­i­ta­tion on the uni­fied self. “I would start with the propo­si­tion that hu­man con­scious­ness is so­cially dis­trib­uted, con­sti­tuted, and per­formed, and not just an emer­gent ef­fect of a bi­o­log­i­cally pro­grammed in­di­vid­ual psy­choneu­ro­log­i­cal growth cy­cle,” Sap­pol writes. “A sec­ond premise: hu­man con­scious­ness and iden­tity are fun­da­men­tally di­vided.” The au­thor makes this state­ment at the very end of Body Mod­ern — the book’s en­tirety hav­ing been a set-up for a larger point: “We come to be­lieve that we have uni­fied selves through a di­a­log­i­cal in­ter­ac­tive process. The uni­fied self — the ‘I’ ef­fect — is pro­duced by nam­ing, reg­is­tra­tion, mark­ing prac­tices, laws, par­ent­ing ac­tions, gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, and im­age pro­duc­tion, all work­ing to shape fa­mil­ial, le­gal, and peer ex­pec­ta­tions that the in­di­vid­ual must be the bearer of a sta­ble, bound iden­tity.”

Sap­pol loads quite a philo­soph­i­cal bur­den onto the shoul­ders of the ho­muncu­lus — a man and the idea of a man, both with jobs to do. Sap­pol notes through­out Body Mod­ern that the im­ages Kahn pre­sented were of­ten less tech­no­log­i­cally cut­ting edge than they were sim­ply sur­real. And from Sap­pol’s writ­ing, we understand that the ho­muncu­lus was just as of­ten con­cep­tual as it was lit­eral. “This book is about how im­ages cast their spell, how tech­nolo­gies shape the mode and con­tent of im­ages, and how people use im­ages and im­ages use people,” he writes. “In the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, there was a pol­i­tics of text ver­sus im­age: de­bates over the so­cial mean­ing, moral ef­fects, de­sir­abil­ity, in­stru­men­tal uses, and con­trol of im­ages. That pol­i­tics, I ar­gue, was all about how to get mod­ern. Fritz Kahn was an im­pre­sario of the mod­ern.”

“Body Mod­ern: Fritz Kahn, Sci­en­tific Il­lus­tra­tion, and the Ho­muncu­lar Sub­ject” by Michael Sap­pol is pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Press.

A Chi­nese adap­ta­tion of Der Men­sch als In­dus­triepalast, chil­dren’s health poster, Phys­i­ol­ogy and Hy­giene Or­ga­ni­za­tion, Shanghai, 1933, artist un­cred­ited, Na­tional Li­brary of Medicine

The model for Der Men­sch als In­dus­triepalast, from “A Look into Head­quar­ters,” Pic­tured Knowl­edge, 1917, col­orized and re­drawn by Paul Flan­erky, in Wun­der in Uns (2nd edi­tion, 1923), plate 13, Na­tional Li­brary of Medicine

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