Christoph Ernst

E-mail address:
Home institution:
Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen Nuremberg,
Institute for Theatre and Media Studies
Academic position: research fellow
Areas of research: media theory, semiotics (esp. diagrammatic reasoning), visual culture
Title of the presentation: The Mediation of Perception in Mythological Thinking 


Most important Publications

  • Essayistische Medienreflexion. Die Idee des Essayismus und die Frage nach den Medien (Bielefeld 2005)
  • Diagrammatik. Einführung in ein kultur- und medienwissenschaftliches Forschungsfeld (with Matthias Bauer, Bielefeld 2010)

Title of the presentation

The Mediation of Perception in Mythological Thinking


The interaction between (visual) perception and technical media is embedded in cultural practices. The aesthetic and epistemic character of mediated perception thus can not be adequately conceptualized without looking at the relevance of the medium for experimental and speculative reasoning. A good example of such an interaction between visual perception and visual media as well as its influence on specific types of speculative reasoning is provided by the generic role of mediated perception in the formation of modern myths, esp. in modern conspiracy theories (taken here as an example of modern ?mythologies? according to Roland Barthes). Traditionally, ?mythological thinking? (Ernst Cassirer) has been regarded primarily as a narrative and textual practice. In contrast to this view, I will try to show that mythological thinking has to be considered as inherently visual and therefore dependent on mediated perception. This holds true esp. for the so-called ?indexical-iconic problem? of technical visual media. This problem emerged with the advent of technical visual media and is concerned with the question whether or not the objects represented by technical visual media are actually ?real?. As unorthodox as it may sound, modern mythology ? regarded here as a ?secondary connotative system? (Roland Barthes) ? is a prime example of a cultural discourse that allows us to observe the mediation of (visual) perception in its relation to epistemic practices. The reason for this is the fact that technical visual media confront the human perception with its own limits. One of the most striking, but commonly overlooked examples of such a modern visual medium of perception is the telescope. From its invention in the 16th century on, the telescope and its form of mediation of perception forces us to be aware of visual perception?s inherent blind spots. Looking through a telescope, the eye does not only see what it can see, but also what it can not see. It thereby sees that it can not see, or less elliptic: The telescope provides a ?visible invisibility? (Joseph Vogl) and thereby constitutes the typical modernist contingency of mediated perception: the tension between the pragmatic evidence of ?natural? perception and its ?artificial? but nonetheless (possibly) true imagery. In consequence, the epistemic use of technical media and its mediation of perception implies the necessity of a horizon of possibilities provided not by perception, but by the medium itself.

In consequence, it is interesting to notice the extent by which mythological thinking is interwoven with those possibilities, or more precise: virtualities of mediated perception. Mythological thinking can thus be analyzed as a specific cultural practice of reasoning with those possibilities, mainly relying on a type of highly speculative visual reasoning that has to be considered on the epistemological level as a cartographic ? or as Charles S. Peirce puts it ? diagrammatic type of reasoning. As an example of this connection between mediated perception and mythological thinking I will refer to the so-called ?canal craze? that started around 1877 and was about the supposedly artificial canals of an advanced civilization on Mars. Following this example into the 20th century, I will try to delineate how mediated perception and mythological thinking interacted with the respective media that provided scientists with the pictures of the mars canals. The use of telescopes in the middle of the 19th century, the impact of astrophotography at the beginning of the 20th century, and the subsequent space exploration by mars orbiters in the second half of the 20th century, the myth of the mars civilization has been transformed in interaction with a diagrammatic interpretation of the imagery that provides the basic framework for the respective narrative, i.e. mythological interpretation. In my talk I would like to point out how mythological thinking is not only created by a diagrammatic type of visual reasoning, but also highly dependent on the form of the mediation of visual perception in its respective scientific and sociocultural context. The example of the Martian canals and the myth of a Martian civilization suggests that in the light of the interplay between the properties of visual perception and media generated imagery theories of mythology have to be revised.

? Back to Participants