Enciclopédia e Hipertexto

Genealogy – On the iconography and rhetorics of an epistemological topos

Sigrid Weigel

  1. Genealogy in the history of knowledge


In his reflections on Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy, Michel Foucault distinguishes between two terms within genealogy: Herkunft (fr. l’origine) and Entstehung (fr. l’emergence). Foucault’s perspective is motivated first and foremost by the differentiation from any kind of narrative of origin, history of development or linear genesis in which origin and beginning are thought of as one. By Herkunft, he understands extraction or descent (provenance), which he associates with inheritance and the body: ‘Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.’[1]Entstehung, by contrast, denotes emergence, the moment of arising (surgissement), ‘the principle and the single law of an apparition’[2], that is, the event and the moment through or in which something attains both visibility and consequence: ‘Emergence is thus the entrance of forces on the scene; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to open stage’[3].

If the stage is understood as a scene made possible by its non-visible reverse side or rather, that which precedes and accompanies the emergence onto the scene, then the space of the wings ought also be taken into the reckoning. Given that this space refers to the location from which the emergent springs, the image of the stage gives rise to the question of what happens in the wings and in what manner the movement of the leap onto the stage relates to the figure of genesis or descent. Thus ‘the wings’ become readable as a metaphor for the dimension of descent that has become separated from the figure of emergence. The genealogical topoi are here operating on, and simultaneously organising, the threshold between nature and culture. The specific manner in which this ‘in-between-ness’ is organised is, however, subject to the influences of decisive historical caesurae or turning points, which cannot simply be designated in terms of the history of the development of a concept or of its popularity. In this sense, the study of genealogy itself requires a genealogical examination. Genealogy, in other words, not only denotes a particular approach within the history of knowledge,[4] but the various genealogical schemata are themselves the object of a theory and history of knowledge.

The mutual implication of genealogy as approach and genealogy as object of study is already evident in the term’s history. The entry for the word ‘généalogie’ in the Encyclopédie (1751-80) marks its adoption into the register of systematic knowledge. The article in volume seven of the Encyclopédie, assigning the word to the register of historiography, opens with the following definition: ‘mot tiré du grec, (…) il est composé de genos, race, lingnée, & de logos, discours, traité.’[5] The article thus introduces the word in a dual perspective: (1) as the connection (composé) of two different terms, the expression for a particular category (race, lingnée) and the term denoting the genre of that category’s representation (discours or traité), whereby the listing of two alternative French words in each case (2) is an indication of a problem of translation. With the derivation from the Greek (genos and logos), the term is not only marked as a word of foreign provenance, but also as part of a linguistic genealogy in which the account of its provenance is accompanied by a switch from one language to another.

The continuation of the quoted entry in the Encyplopédie is an account of the contemporary established meanings of the term ‘genealogy’. As far as the history of the term is concerned, the article records its meanings on the eve of the French Revolution in the form of a summary of genealogical knowledge in the ancien régime, upholding the coupling of genealogy with the ancestral family trees of the nobility as recorded since the Middle Ages. Even into the nineteenth century, genealogy is unquestioningly reserved for the histories of noble lines, for example in Pierer’s Universal-Lexikon of 1840, in which genealogy is defined as the ‘science of the origin, lineage and kinship of noble families’.[6]


2. Genealogy as figura – between myth, philosophy and language

In what follows, however, the focus will be primarily on the second part of the compound: on logos, that is on the logic or language of lineage. For in almost all articles on genealogy there are cross-references to the form of representation, to the genealogical or family tree, to the genealogical or dynastic table, the pedigree, the family album or ancestral register. ‘On forme d’une génealogie une espece d’arbre. Voyez l’article suivant’, as it says in the Encyclopédie. Other articles lose themselves in endless descriptions of the types of representation or forms in which genealogical knowledge has been handed down. These include the whole gamut of narrative, tabular, graphic and symbolic representations from which the registers and tables form a sort of transitional phase between mythic and pictorial representations, in particular in the sense that in the classical and Biblical traditions counting and recounting are often still one and the same. In this respect the history of genealogical knowledge can only be described in the context of its mediation and representational modes. Or to be more precise: genealogy is the history of the symbolic, iconographic and rhetorical practices, the systems for recording and the techniques of culture through and in which the knowledge of families, races and species or of the succession of life within time is handed down.

The most widespread representational forms of genealogy, the genealogical tables, narrative accounts of ancestral lines, and family registers frequently refer to classical and Biblical accounts as their models and reference points. In the Universal-Lexikon (1840) quoted above, for example, we find: ‘The oldest g. is the mythology of the gods and the succession of the heroes, just as the oldest (mythical) story of most peoples is a genealogy; (…) indeed, according to Hebrew legend, the human race itself begins with a progenitor.’[7] Here, the encyclopaedic question about the origin of genealogy, the ‘oldest g.’, leads us back once more to the genealogy of origin and the beginning of the human race. In this respect, Klaus Heinrich’s claim is valid, namely, with regard to the function of genealogy in myth and philosophy that it creates the conditions for an attitude of mind shaped by the myth of origin. As he argues, this extends even into the ‘most rationalised form of genealogy’, into the system of deductive logic, deductive inference: ‘The power of origins is upheld throughout the chain of genera, of generations. (…) Of course Greek logic, like every logics is a dedemonicising undertaking. But the nucleus of this logic is genealogy, and that means: it rests upon an attitude of mind shaped by the myth of origin.’[8] His study has the merit of having drawn attention to the structures of genealogical knowledge common to both myth and philosophy and having relativised the strict opposition of genealogy and philosophy as established and maintained in the canonical history of philosophy. Thus it is not the case, as is often stated, that it was not until Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1887) that genealogy was reintroduced into philosophy. This view is contradicted not least by the popularity of genealogical approaches to philosophy around 1800, for example in the work of Mendelssohn, Herder or Schelling.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) also has recourse to genealogical figures. Their status shifts between metaphor and comparison or rather, between absolute metaphor and simile as a simple figure of speech. Thus in the section ‘Von den reinen Verstandesbegriffen oder Kategorien’ (‘The Pure Concepts of the Understanding, or Categories’), for example, in which he distinguishes between his own categories and those of Aristotle, Kant writes of the ‘Stammbegriffe’ (stem concepts) i.e. the ‘original and primitive concepts [of pure understanding]’. He differentiates between these and the ‘derivative concepts’ in order ‘to give a complete picture’ of the system of pure and derived concepts as a ‘family tree of the [concepts of] pure understanding’.[9] In this passage, family tree and derivation can be understood as absolute metaphors (in Hans Blumenberg’s sense).[10] They prepare the way for, introducing the philosophical concept of deduction, to which the next chapter of the Critique is devoted. Here, the metaphor is taken up once more, when for example Kant writes of the ‘certificate of birth’ of concepts[11] – this in the context of a distinction between transcendental and empirical deduction. In the ensuing philosophical discussion of transcendental deduction, the genealogical metaphors recede into the background, only to reappear again in the conclusion – § 27 ‘Resultat dieser Deduktion der Verstandesbegriffe’ (‘Outcome of this Deduction of the Concepts of Understanding’) – albeit in modified form, namely transformed into the contemporary scientific paradigm of genealogical debate, i.e. the controversy between the doctrine of preformation (Haller) and the theory of epigenesis (Wolff). These controversial theories are used by Kant in this section as a simile, as metaphors, then, in the conventional sense of figurative speech, when he discusses the relation of experience and concept as ‘two ways’ of thinking: ‘either experience makes these concepts possible or these concepts make experience possible’.[12] If the first is rejected as ‘a sort of generatio aequivoca’, while the second is labelled approvingly a ‘a system, as it were, of the epigenesis of pure reason ’, in the following rejection of a middle course the counter-concept to epigenesis, pre-formation, comes into play as a comparison: i.e. in the phrase ‘a kind of preformation-system of pure reason’.[13] Examining the rhetoric of Kant’s cognitive theory of deduction reveals, then, that the shift from the traditional image of the genealogical tree to contemporary scientific terminology goes hand in hand with the transformation of absolute metaphor to figurative speech. This means that scientific concept and metaphor or simile occur in one and the same moment, while this opposition is preceded by absolute metaphor as a productive impulse. Philosophy does not stand in opposition to genealogy, then, but it is itself involved in the interplay of mythical and systematic figures of genealogical knowledge.

An effect of this is that discursive and rhetorical structures are also represented in the figure of the tree. An exact reverse figure to that of derivation in deduction refers, for example, to the ramifications (in other words, branching-out) of decisions, whether this is in the process of argumentation or with regard to desire. It is in this sense that Roland Barthes often uses the figure of the tree – for example in his readings of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola (1971). Barthes describes Loyola’s discourse as a network of knots and branches and figured in the diagram of a tree with its branches extending upwards: ‘The development of the discourse then resembles the spreading of a tree, a well-known figure among linguists. Here, sketched out, is the tree of the first Week.’[14] One has, says Barthes, to envisage the tree-like growth of his discourse as an organigram intended ‘to regulate the transformation of a request into language, or: the production of a cipher capable of exciting the Divinity’s reply. The Exercises is somehow machine-like in the cybernetic sense of the term.’[15] We hear the structuralist Barthes speaking here still, for whom the linguistic system functions cybernetically, so that every transformation into speech leads to the conversion of everything – things, actions, wishes, and so on – into the generative structure of language and rhetoric.

Etymology, as linguistic derivation, has a long history of representation in the schema of the tree; in structuralism, however, this scheme is as it were projected into the dimension of synchrony, which functions as a condition of possibility for cybernetic models of thought. A very specific genealogical approach to linguistic etymology is opened up on the other hand by the method of ‘material’ derivation, through the reconstruction of visual and acoustic traces of similarity between individual words and the development of an organic alphabet, as presented, for example, by de Brosse in his Traité de la formation mécanique des langues (1765) which has been analysed in Gérard Genette’s Mimilogics (1976).

(Fig. 1: de Brosse, Organiches Alphabet, 1765, in G. Genette: “Malerei und Ableitung”, In: Mimilogiken. Reise nach Kratylien (1976) Frankfurt/M., 1976: 135)


3. The tree as schema – between life and knowledge, taxonomy and genealogy

The genealogical tree, as the pictorial icon and formative schema of genealogical representations, can be traced back to a mythical scene, to the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. Already in this story, cognition is bound into a dialectic of life and knowledge which can be numbered amongst the most popular scenes of literary and philosophical reflection. Franz Kafka’s ‘Aphorisms’, for example, play constantly around the constellation of the Fall: ‘Why do we lamant about the Fall of Man? It was not because of this that we were driven from Paradise, but because of the Tree of Life, so that we wouldn’t eat from it.’ And: ‘We are not only sinful because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten from the Tree of Life.’[16]

(Fig. 2: Mediaval miniature by Berthold Furtmeyer: Baum des Todes und des Lebens, 1481 (depicting both trees in one). In: Roger Cook: The Tree of Life. Image for the Cosmos. New York 1974. 44)

Taking Genesis and Kafka’s reflections as a point of reference, the Tree of Knowledge has been interpreted as the first genealogical tree, in the context of an examination of the link between the two trees of paradise, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, in mediaeval representations: ‘The tasting of the fruit from the wrong tree signifies the renunciation of immortality, but also the origin of all systems of kinship; the Tree of Knowledge is as it were the first family tree, not because the original parents ate from it, but because they began the project of the propagation of the human race in its shadow.’ As Thomas Macho has shown, the Tree of Knowledge has in the course of cultural history appeared in a number of different guises. As the tree of origins and descent, it makes its reappearance in the Middle Ages in the form of a geometrically ordered construction. Its variants extend from the tree of family relations and dynastic systems to the tree of philosophical deduction. And even Lull’s ars combinatoria, which – in a similar way to the sephirotic trees of the Spanish cabala – regulated the registers of medical, cosmological and philosophical fields of knowledge and in so doing transformed the ‘vertical diachronicity of the classes and generations into the horizontal synchronicity of tabular combination’, and retained at least the iconography of the tree despite the critique of this genealogical model.[17]

(Fig. 3: Athanasius Kircher, Sephirotic Tree, 1652, in Roger Cook: Tree of Life. Images for the Cosmos, New York, 1974: 70).


The blurred transitions between register and table were elaborated by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber in her book L’Ombre des Ancêtres, which, as a study of the history of mediaeval and early modern trees, focuses in particular on vocabulary and graphic syntax.

(Fig. 4: Arbre de consanguinité, 9th century . Jahrhundert. In: Christiane Klapisch-Zuber: L’Ombre des Ancêtres. Paris 2000. 3)


The transitions between register and tree not only touch upon the relationship of schema and iconography, they also concern the threshold between counting and recounting and the transitions between cultural techniques of recording and the rhetoric and symbolism of representation, between diagram and image. Such transitions undergo numerous caesurae in the history of genealogy. While the listings of successive generations in antiquity and the purely enumerative family registers in the Bible were replaced in the Middle Ages by the co-existence of genealogical tales in epic poems and a variety of tree iconographies in philosophy, in the eighteenth century the dominance of the genealogical tree is in turn superseded by the opposition between classification and development, between tableau and evolution, between synchronic and diachronic representation. These historical changes in ways of thinking about and representing genealogy correspond to changes in the conceptualisation of time. If registers, lists and successions of Biblical and classical families represent a kind of mythical measure of time, then the genealogical tale of the mediaeval epics is by contrast to be understood as a form of simultaneity in which origin and the present coincide, as Peter Czerwinski has shown in his study Gegenwärtigkeit (‘presentness’). In the genealogical rituals of the Middle Ages, he argues, the family or dynasty is presented as a body entire and whole ‘whose latest members share a space in time with the earliest, in a state of complete presence’.[18]

Against this background the thesis concerning the temporalisation of nature, which began to make an impact around 1800 at the transition point from Histoire naturelle to a scientic historiography of nature and which has been described as a shift from classificatory regulation to genealogical models,[19] takes on a rather different significance. If ‘temporalisation’ can be interpreted as the attempt to arrive at a solution to the crisis of classification vis-à-vis the manifold and hybrid nature of species by means of a recourse to the category of time, then the return of the tree in this context is to be seen not only as a symbol of a (re-) naturalised conceptualisation of history, but also as a schema in which the dimensions of time and of taxonomy were always already in conjunction and conflict with each other. The topos of the tree can thus be regarded as a scene of negotiation between the static tableau and the Scala naturae, between classificatory and genealogical, systematic and historical models. In this respect, its return to the history of science around 1800 is to be understood as the symptom of the negotiation between these conflicting explanatory models which may be represented as opposition, shift, superimposition or interlocking.

What needs to be considered here is an epistemic problem which has preoccupied the biological sciences since their emergence in the eighteenth century, the task namely of determining the relationship between the genetic constancy of genus or species and the variation or modification that is the condition of possibility for evolutionary change. If a species can on the one hand only be defined in terms of its difference from other species, its evolution can on the other hand only be conceived as development within time. In this respect the biological recourse to genealogical schemata makes reference to the inherited structures of the latter, on the interplay and antagonism between synchronic classification (with the effect of the formation of unities) and diachronic derivation (as a projection into the dimension of time). This now appears as a conflict in the definition of systems of relationship in the natural sciences. The conflict between the (phylo-) genetic dimension and the classification of genera founds the entire history of the rise of evolutionary-theoretical models in biology. Alexandre Métraux has recently shift the focus on this conflict from the level of explanatory models to that of material practice in the categorisation of objects in the museum in order to discuss this material order of things as a technical method for the ordering of knowledge.

The case of Lamarck and his colleagues at the Musée d’histoire naturelle reveals that the decisions made between series, scale, table and taxonomy were not only relevant to the formation of theory, but also for the distribution of objects in space in archive. From this he derived the thesis that the tree in Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (1809) does not so much represent a figuration of a genealogical history as that series and tree are here rather to be read as figures of distribution, which must be understood as transitional sites between technical and rhetorical knowledge.[20]

4. The image of the encyclopaedia on the threshold of system and tree

The modification of genealogical figures can also be studied in respect of the great project of the Encyclopédie – not least by means of the two graphic representations intended to illustrate the encyclopaedia’s system: a taxonomic and an iconographic tree.

(Fig. 5 Diderot: Systême figuré des connaissances humaines, Encyclopédie, 1851. In: Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (1751). Reprint Stuttgart, Bad Cannstatt 1988. Bd. 1, o. S.)

(Fig. 6: F. G. Roth: Explication détaillée du systeme des Connoissances Humaines tirée du Discours Préliminaire du Tome I. de l’Encyclopédie Publiée par Mr. Diderot et Mr. d’Alembert à Paris pour Servir à l’Usage de l’Arbre Encyclopédique. Jena 1772. In: Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (1751). Reprint Stuttgart, Bad Cannstatt 1967. Bd. 34, o. S.)


These graphics have the difficult task of visually representing the complex order of encyclopaedic knowledge with regard to the systematic distinctions as well as their interconnections. ‘If it is already often difficult enough to prescribe a limited number of rules or general concepts for the individual sciences and arts, it is no less difficult to accommodate the infinitely intricate branches of human knowledge in a single unified system’, says d’Alembert in his Discours préliminaire (1751), where he explains the system according to which the alphabetical listing of the articles in the encyclopaedia is organised. The goal of combining variety and unity emerges once again in the form of an interplay of classification and origin: ‘Our first step in this study is thus the analysis of – if we may use the term – the family tree and of the connections and continuities between the areas of our knowledge, the probable causes of their development and the characteristics of the distinctions made; in a word, we must return to the origin and emergence of our conceptions.’[21] Thus the preface to the alphabetical ordering of knowledge describes the prehistory of the project literally as a family tree. That the initiator of this ambitious project thinks it necessary to apologise for the image of the tree signals the status of the genealogical tree as a kind of foreign body in the new systematic and alphabetical ordering of knowledge.

On the eve of Kant’s Streit der Fakultäten (Conflict of the Faculties) (1798), in which the ordering of knowledge is regulated via a new division and hierarchy of academic subjects, the project of the Encyclopédie demonstrates the problems of designation between objects and cognitive models as well as those of their classification and derivation. Whereas d’Alembert’s introduction reflects on the impossibility of a unified system, Diderot’s Prospect of the Encyclopaedia (1750) enacts the shift addressed in the former from speaking of object and matter (science, the free arts, the mechanical arts) to that system which, like a kind of palimpsest, underpins encyclopaedic knowledge (memory, reason, imagination). Each heading is followed by a note in parentheses which assigns the concepts to their respective class – for example ‘Généalogie, f.f. (Hist.)’ or ‘Familiarité, (Morale)’, ‘Famille, (Droit nat.)’ and ‘Famille, (Jurispr.)’ – so that the systematic cipher supplements the alphabetical ordering. These ciphers mark the access to a system, which Diderot comprehensively explains in his ‘Explication Détaillée du Systeme des Connaissances Humaines’, but whose genealogical structure only becomes clear in the supplemented graphic representation.

Referring to Bacon’s three-part system Of the Advancement and Proficience of Learning or The Partitions of the Sciences (1640), Diderot proceeds from three main faculties of the mind: (1) the memory that records, (2) the judgement that analyses, compares and processes, and (3) the imagination that imitates and distorts. These three activities of mind provide, as they do in Bacon, the basis of three classes of knowledge: Mémoire/Histoire, Raison/Philosophie, Imagination/Poésie. They form the frame for a systematic classification of the totality of knowledge. This means that Diderot responds to the task of accounting both for divergent variety and for unity as formulated by d’Alembert with a system that in its structure combines the modes both of classification and derivation/deduction. In the graphic for the Systême figuré the classifications of the text are translated into a table in which the multiple derivations and sub-divisions of groups of knowledge are printed next to each other. Leaving behind the alternative of the ascending or descending tree, derivation is here projected into the horizontal plane. As a graphic schema, the Systême figuré is thus a hybrid figure, to the extent that it presents a mixture of the figures of the register and the genealogical tree.

That the Systême figuré can also be read as an encyclopaedic tree manifested itself via a literal detour in its reading. Here the rhetorical foreign body of the genealogical tree returns in the form of a printed image from the hand of a foreigner who translates the system and text of the Encyclopédie into an image. In 1772 a German admirer of the project of the encyclopaedia, who signed himself ‘Chrétien Fréderic Guillaume Roth’ from Weimar, published a small French-language text in which he addresses himself in twofold manner: on the one hand, in the homage of an ‘étranger Allemand’, to the authors of the Encyclopédie, to whom he offers ‘un Arbre avec fruits, planté par Vous’, and on the other, for the purposes of publicity, to the reader, to whom he offers a subscription to Diderot’s Explication ‘pour servir a l’usage de l’Arbre encyclopédique’.[22] In the print entitled ‘Essai d’un arbre encyclopédique’ that accompanies the text, Roth has translated Diderot’s Explication détaillée literally into the image of a tree.

The fact that in Diderot’s system, philosophy, as the central class of knowledge, is given the most space aids the representation in the figure of a tree in that the central stem must always be the strongest if a relatively regular crown is to develop. The encyclopaedic tree has nevertheless quite clearly not been arrived at through the translation of the Systême figuré into a pictorial representation, not, in other words, as the transformation from the figurative into the iconographic, but rather through the transfer of Diderot’s text into an image. This can be discerned from the fact that entire sentences from Diderot’s derivations are written into the medallions attached to the stems and branches of the tree. In contrast to the horizontal derivations in the Systême figuré, here the branches ascend vertically, so that the genealogy is once more shifted from the horizontal to the vertical plane. So while the transfer of text into image is accompanied by a change from the descent of derivation to the ascent of the genealogical tree, the co-existence of system and image emerges as an alternative between horizontal and vertical planes.

In this constellation of the simultaneity of differing representational forms for the project of the encyclopaedia – not only the alphabetical ordering but also the explication or derivation, the tabular schema of the Systême figuré and the image of the encyclopaedic tree – it becomes clear that the negotiations between the epistemological models of classification and genealogy correspond to transferences between differing forms of representation.


5. Genealogical iconography – resemblance and schema

When we consider the specific systems of sign and symbol employed by genealogical representations, we find that these also often appear as hybrid forms. While the narrative registers of the generations of families consist of the listing of names and kinship links, and the lists of family lines are formed from a combination of numbers (dates) and names, the graphic genealogies can for the most part be described as an interplay of diagrammatic schemata with mimetic elements (such as name or portrait) or, alternatively, encoded symbols (such as coat of arms or abstract signs).

The most extensive historical records of genealogical schemata originate on the one hand from the archive of mediaeval ancestral tables and on the other from the aforementioned archive of an ars combinatoria such as Lull’s, the cabalistic or the sephirotic trees of knowledge.[23] Locatable in the pre-history of the encyclopaedic tree, the latter are normally represented in the form of a genealogical schema which organises the different groups of knowledge or also vices/virtues, usually identified by given terms, into a particular figure. The combination of figure and writing draws them into the proximity of rhetoric and emblematics. In the ancestral tables, by contrast, which show the descent and kinship relations of persons, the relevant positions must be represented if not by a name, then by a symbol or an image. In this respect the iconography of the ancestral tables is situated at that grammatological threshold at which the system of resemblances and the system of signs come into contact. For a very long time, though, narrative aspects get included in the graphic representation, predisposing the tree for the depiction of larger genealogical tales also. Like the simultaneous images of mediaeval panel painting, the genealogies often show, even in later centuries, the sequence of linear succession or of events as a concurrence of single stations or scenes. The birth and life of Christ, which can follow the same representational schema, provide the model for an entire genealogical register. The leading paradigm is Christ’s descent from the line of David, which for example, traces Christ’s origins back to Jesse, David’s grandfather.

This Biblical model of the ancestral table is sometimes also represented as a descending tree when the account in reverse order of the chain of Christ’s forefathers in the New Testament is translated into the form of the roots of a tree.

(Fig. 7: Pacino da Bonaguido, Christ and the Tree of Life, 14th century. In: Cook: Tree. 49)

(Fig. 8: John Goddard, The Tree of Man’s Life, 1649. In Cook: Tree. 43)


In the ancestral registers of noble families it is striking with what variety of iconography the persons are represented in the image and the successive generations marked in the schema of the tree. Alongside the names there are a diversity of portraits, whether in the form of medallions, sculptures or busts. And this is accompanied by the system of heraldic symbolism, when the family coat of arms is placed beside or in the place of individual persons. The genealogical representation’s method of combining schema, mimesis and heraldry may be the reason why this form of representation has maintained itself over a relatively long period of time.

(Fig. 9 Philipp Brandin, Gravestone of Duke Ulrich, Elisabeth of Denmark and Anna of Pommerania, 1587. Postkarte, Aufnahme von Jutta Brüdern, Deutscher Kunstverlag)


Precisely the portrait makes it possible for the family tree to be annexed for the privatisation of genealogy, which occurred in the nineteenth century as research into family roots became popular. In the context of a media history under the sign of the mechanical reproduction of the arts, the painted portrait is simply replaced by the photograph.

(Fig. 10: Genealogical tree of the Dubois family, 1883, in Pierre Nora (Hg.): Les Lieux de Mémoires. III. Paris 1994. S. 18).


Thus with the aid of the new medium of photography and its utilisation in family research, genealogy became a residual site of pre-modern figures of knowledge in the heart of modernity. This use of portrait photographs in family research marks a trace of the older notion of resemblance in an historical constellation in which the transformation of genealogy into a science is accompanied by an increasing domination of diagrammatic cultural techniques and encoded symbolic systems.

 If the old ancestral table served largely as a medium of evidence in the so-called test of pedigree, that is, the proof of the purity and rightful birth of the ‘born nobleman’, later the function of the genealogical schema increasingly separated off into national and medical variants. Above all in the figure of the tree a genealogical schema from the history of the ancestral tables is transported into the family research and the doctrine of heredity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, however, a distinction must be made, despite the continuities in the use of genealogical figures, between on the one hand the descending lines of the family or genealogical tables, which take the progenitor as their starting-point and branch downwards, as it were adopting the position of origin or provenance, and on the other the ascending lines of the ancestral table, which trace the descent of a person back over several generations, thus adopting the position of the present or the person whose pedigree is being tested.

(Fig. 11: Pierer, Universal-Lexikon: Ancestral table in the form of an ascending family tree, 1840. In: H. A. Pierer (Hg.): Universal-Lexikon der Gegenwart und Vergangenheit oder neuestes encyclopädisches Wörterbuch der Wissenschaften, Künste und Gewerbe. Altenburg 1840)


Finally, there are also the diagrams, which represent both directions. In comparison with the iconographic tree, the diagrammatic tree or the tree-like diagrammatic schema is as it were turned on its head. For the upward line now no longer leads to the crown, but rather represents a backward-oriented derivation of a person’s descent from ancestral forefathers and thus points from the living to the dead, while the downward line does the reverse, indicating the lineage of a succession and thus as it were from a given point of origin into its future.

In this graphic schema, the symbol of the tree becomes a model for the organisation of time along a numbered sequence of generations. It remains at most a moot point how far back, in terms of the generations, the ancestral table needs to go: into the third generation, with eight forebears, or into the sixth generation, with sixty-four forebears. The entry of numerical figures into the genealogical schema is accompanied by the introduction of coded symbols, which take the place of the earlier portraits, and planetary symbols. Now circles and squares are used as signs for the individual positions in the genealogy: positions no longer occupied by persons but by statement of gender and the description of family relationship.

For medicine and biology the tree provides the schema of a generalisable genealogical knowledge into which the data of the individual family trees and their respective particularities can be entered: a method of combining lines and numbers, which represent the system of relationship, and a code of geometrical ciphers symbolising male and female forebears or offspring.

A further line of the doctrine of heredity connects to the morphological trace of resemblance. In Haeckel’s ‘Family Tree of the Human Race’ in his Anthropogenie (Anthropogeny) (1877) the schema of the ascending ancestral table, which takes as its starting-point the person whose pedigree is being tested, is as it were put back on the feet of the older iconography in which the ascending line lead to the crown of the tree. In the place of the ancestral portraits, we now find the names of the species or organisms.

(Fig. 12: Ernst Haeckel, Family Tree of the Human Race, 1877. In: Ernst Haeckel: Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen. Gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche Vorträge über die Grundzüge der menschlichen Keimes- und Stammes-Geschichte. Leipzig 1874. Tafel XV)


The comparison of this schema with the text of Haeckel’s Anthropogenie reveals, however, that the iconography here has the task of bridging points of obscurity or gaps in the scientific explanation, and of concealing these in a unified picture or rather, in a picture of the unity and completeness of the model. As the rhetorical equivalent of the tree, Haeckel’s text also employs the series and the chain – the chain of the various animal forms, the ancestral series and the chain of forebears – but it also uses the sequence of the letters of the alphabet: ‘We can label this interrupted sequence of forms with the sequence of the letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E and so on, up to Z.’[24] This alphabetical method of notation aids Haeckel in coming to terms with the fact of ‘manifold gaps’ and to treat the history of the race as a kind of damaged – in philological terms, corrupt – text. He speaks of forgeries, abridgements and displacements in the onto- and phylogenetic chain, which become describable through his recourse to the textual metaphor.

And so it is that Haeckel’s ‘Family Tree of the Human Race’ makes visible what has been at stake in the entire history of genealogy. The family or genealogical tree, and in particular the icon of the tree, marks in this history of genealogical figures the position of an imaginary synthesis of the multiple dimensions, which interact in genealogy. In the image of the tree the difficulties of clarifying the complex issues of genealogical figures of thought are simultaneously condensed and subsumed. In this respect the tree must be regarded as the metaphor of genealogical knowledge, not, however, as metaphor in the sense of a figure of speech, but as master trope and pathos formula, which also becomes legible as symptom.


[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977 (Cornell paperback edn. 1980), pp.139-164, here p.148.

[2] Ibid., p.148.

[3] Ibid., pp. 149-50, transl. modified.

[4] And this takes place even in contemporary times, see e.a. the composition which is shapes like a descent of  branched lines in Michel Serres (Hg.): Elemente einer Geschichte der Wissenschaften. (1989) Frankfurt/M. 1994.

[5] Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (1751). Reprint Stuttgart, Bad Cannstatt 1967. Bd. 7, S. 548.

[6] H. A. Pierer (Hg.): Universal-Lexikon der Gegenwart und Vergangenheit oder neuestes encyclopädisches Wörterbuch der Wissenschaften, Künste und Gewerbe. Altenburg 1840. Bd. 2, S. 64.

[7] Pierer, Universal-Lexikon (footnote 6), S. 65

[8] Klaus Heinrich: Die Funktion der Genealogie im Mythos. In: Parmenides und Jona. Vier Studien zum Verhältnis von Philosophie und Mythologie. Frankfurt/M. 1982. S. 20.

[9] Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Werke in sechs Bänden. Hg. v. Wilhelm Weischedel. Darmstadt 1983. Bd. II. S. 119f .- Engl. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, electronic edition courtesy of Macmillan Press Limited at http://www.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Philosophy/Kant/cpr/, p.114 (square brackets in original).

[10] For a first systematic recepetion of Hans Blumenberg in English see Qui Parle. Literature, Philosopha, Visual Arts, History. Vol 12., Nr. 1/2000.

[11] Ibid., p.122.

[12] Ibid., p.174.

[13] Ibid., p.175.

[14] Roland Barthes, ‘Loyola’, in Barthes, Sade. Fourier, Loyola, trans. Richard Miller, London: Jonathan Cape, 1977, p.57.

[15] Ibid., p.57, transl. modified..

[16] Franz Kafka: Aphorismen. In: Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer und andere Schriften aus dem Nachlaß. Bd. 6 der Gesammelten Werke, hg. v. Hans-Gerd Koch. Frankfurt/M. 1994. S. 241f.

[17] Thomas Macho: Stammbäume, Freiheitsbäume und Geniereligion. Anmerkungen zur Geschichte genealogischer Systeme. In: Sigrid Weigel (Hg.): Genealogie und Genetik. Schnittstellen zwischen Biologie und Kulturgeschichte. Berlin 2002. S. 25.

[18] Peter Czerwinski: Gegenwärtigkeit. Simultane Räume und zyklische Zeiten, Formen von Regeneration und Genealogie im Mittelalter. München 1993. S. 161.

[19] Vgl. etwa Wolf Lepenies: Das Ende der Naturgeschichte und der Beginn der Moderne. Verzeitlichung und Enthistorisierung in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. In: Reinhart Koselleck (Hg.): Studien zum Beginn der modernen Welt.  S. 317-351. Also Gian Franco Frigo: „Der stete und feste Gang der Natur zur Organisation“. Von der Naturgeschichte zur Naturphilosophie um 1800. In: Olaf Breidbach/ Paul Ziehe (Hg.): Naturwissenschaften um 1800. Wissenschaftskultur in Jena-Weimar. Weimar 2001. S. 27-45.

[20]Alexandre Métraux: Von der Körperanatomie zur Textarchitektur. Über die Verteilung der Lebewesen in der Biologie um 1800. (Unpublished Ms, seminar as visiting scholar of Zentrum für Literaturforschung Berlin, November 2001).

[21] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert: Einleitung zur ‚Enzyklopädie‘. Hg. v. Günther Mensching. Frankfurt/M. 1989. S.12.

[22] Explication détaillée du systeme des Connoissances Humaines tirée du Discours Préliminaire du Tome I. de l’Encyclopédie Publiée par Mr. Diderot et Mr. d’Alembert à Paris pour Servir à l’Usage de l’Arbre Encyclopédique. à Weimar en Commission chez E.L. Hoffmann, Libraire de la Cour. 1772. de l’Imprimerie de F. Fickelscherr à Jena. – Thanks to Karlheinz Barck who informed me about the publication.

[23] Kilian Heck/ Bernhard Jahn (Hg.): Genealogie als Denkform in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Tübingen 2000. Kilian Heck: Genealogie als Dokument und Monument. Tübingen 2002.

[24] Ernst Haeckel: Anthropogenie oder Entwicklungsgeschicte des Menschen. Leipzig 1874. S. 7.