Philosophy and Cognition in the Age of Mechanical-Digital Reproduction, #2 — Modes of Perception, Modes of Existence.

By Otto Paans

“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)


Previous Installments in This Series

#1: Introduction: The Disappearance of Authenticity, The Appearance of Estrangement


II. Modes of Perception, Modes of Existence

Against the background of alienation, the media of photography and early cinema developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The acceleration of the world, so clearly discernible in Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, is superseded by and represented in the movement of the image.

One should read Walter Benjamin’s well-known 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” with this thought in mind. In that essay, Benjamin spells out his views on the notion of authenticity and alienation in relation to artistic production, a theme that is persistent throughout all of his works, especially his essays. It imbues Benjamin’s work with a certain urgency that can also be perceived in the writings of his contemporary Franz Kafka. Both men were singularly out of place in an increasingly modern world that posed demands they could not reconcile themselves with. The oppressive urgency of these demands emerges in Kafka’s work as a series of traumatic encounters. The unwitting victim of Der Prozess is the paradigmatic Kafkian character, embodying alienation in a social and political world whose demands he does not understand, but has to obey, thus forming an irresolvable traumatic presence. In Benjamin’s work, the trauma of alienation is met by an almost ironic distance. Benjamin remains always the commentator at the sideline — he was the flaneur he describes in the Passagen and identified probably more with the 19th than with the 20th century. Here, the disenchantment of the universe re-appears: Kafka and Benjamin belonged to a different era, when mysticism had not yet been replaced by instrumental reason, nor had the ideal of pre-modernist Reason completely vanished from their work. If anything, in Kafka, the instrumental world of modernity appears as the epitome of irrationality. For Benjamin, the 19th century is not dead — one can hear and see Romanticism lingering in all his writing.

Ironically, the best formulation of the cultural change from Romantic subjectivism to Modernist objectivism was expressed by the man who would achieve a towering status in early-to-mid 20th century classical Analytic philosophy, but who would always remain in certain respects a mystic: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Famously, he complained that with the work of Johannes Brahms (who was a regular visitor with the family Wittgenstein), pure music had come to a full stop. After Brahms, Wittgenstein maintained, all one could hear was the sound of machines. Indeed, when one listens Mosolow’s Iron Foundry or Deshevov’s Rails, one understands immediately what Wittgenstein meant. The universe of absolute music that sprang from the richness of first-person subjectivity was replaced by a methodical approach that focused on atonality and the twelve-tone techniques favored by the Second Viennese School.

Against the background of this shift in cultural production, we can reflect on one of the core insights that Benjamin developed in his 1936 essay:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature, but by historical circumstances as well.[i]

It is worthwhile analyzing this assertion in more detail. Benjamin draws an initial connection between the mode of existence of humanity and its mode of sense perception. Although this is a sweeping claim, one can see how Benjamin sought to show how the feelings of alienation and bewilderment in the face of a changing world crept into how the world was perceived. An alienated humanity will look at the world through bewildered eyes and will (given the nature of perception) hit on certain aspects of the world that were formerly “hidden in plain sight.” (Also, not completely coincidentally, this is an insight that Wittgenstein explored in the Philosophische Untersuchungen, some 15 years later). The unease that all the authors and composers cited in part 1 of this essay caused may be attributed to the fact that the recipients of their texts and musical pieces did subconsciously experience a form of estrangement but lacked the means or vocabulary to express it in words, or otherwise discursively. (Gustav Mahler was once acerbically described as a “theatre director who suffered from composing,” epitomizing what many contemporaries thought of his works.)

The initial connection between existence and perception naturally leads to a second insight: namely, that human perception is actively organized. Benjamin does not elaborate the claim here, but at least two readings seem prima facie plausible. According to the first reading, human perception is organized purposively, in a kind of visual-cognitive economy. One could imagine that Benjamin had something in mind like the Nazi propaganda of the time, presenting images of order and power to a wider public, directing and shaping how it was perceived by the outside world. In this case, the organization on human perception is imposed from the outside and has direct connections with today’s society of the spectacle, or the targeted influence of mass-media.

The second reading draws on the structure of human perception. Benjamin appears to use two different ways of saying the same thing (“The manner in which human perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished”). In this case, Benjamin equates the organization of the human perception with the medium in which perception takes place. Here, he touches on an essentially Kantian theme: namely, the intimate connection between the structure of perception and its organizing capacity for sensible intuitions. In Kant’s philosophy, this structure goes largely by the name a priori, and Kant takes pains to show that all thinking is irreducibly and always structured through the Anschauungsformen time and space, in a way that is unsurpassed in its radicality. Tellingly, this thesis still causes major annoyances in contemporary philosophy, especially manifest in Analytic metaphysics and its Continental doppelgänger, Speculative Realism, both of which dogmatically reject what the former derisively and inaccurately call “subjective idealism” but the latter more accurately call “weak correlationism.” So much for contemporary anti-Kantian annoyance!

During the latter part of the 20th century, however, architectural history would recapitulate and substantiate this Kantian theme, and show how apparently technological or methodological innovations would not merely make manual tasks easier; instead, such innovations change the way in which the world is perceived, and consequently, they change what can be thought and how it is thought. The initial promise of practical innovation was indeed realized, as were a host of other side-effects that the advocates of innovation did not envision at all.

It seems plausible that Benjamin’s assertion leans towards the second reading, although the first one is not thereby ruled out. In any case, the other relation that Benjamin identifies in that assertion is located between the factors that organize human perception, whether internally or externally.

The first of these factors is identified as nature, and it may be that Benjamin meant the natural disposition of the human mind in an undisturbed state. It is immediately clear that here is a direct precursor to theories that seeks to explain perception in naturalistic ways, psychologistic outgrowths of neo-Kantian philosophy and positivism via Helmholtz and Mach, that importantly influenced philosophy in Benjamin’s period. From the mistrust of Marx in production mechanisms, to the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jung, theories that sought to naturalize human mind and human action held a distinctive and important place in late 19th and early 20th century intellectual and sociocultural life.

The second claim is that human perception is at least partially organized by historical circumstances. Through a kind of collective or cultural memory in which all members are steeped, cultures determine what can be thought by those immersed in it. The way in which these circumstances are presented determines retroactively how they are perceived, and what place they are allocated in the narrative of human history.

Thus, this small fragment contains three conceptual connections:

(i) the relation between mode of existence and mode of perception,

(ii) the relation between the organization of human perception and its structure, and

(iii) the relation between the organization of human perception and the organizing factors nature and historical circumstances.

Taken together, the following description seems a plausible exegesis of Benjamin’s thought: the mode of existence of humanity and its mode of perception are intimately related. Changes in one mode cause or determine changes in the other. Conversely, the medium of perception is altered by the tools and concepts it has at its disposal. This array of tools can be organized by natural means (evolution, biogenetics, but equally bio-politics) or by real or narrated historical circumstances (history, national and racial narratives, ideology, biases).

Far from being a prototype postmodern relativist who proudly announces the “end of history,” Benjamin’s approach is more sober, and its core tenet can be extended towards multiple areas of intellectual activity, not just the arts in a time of mechanical reproduction.

The insights that can be drawn from the three relations outlined above entail that the concept of perception can be interpreted in at least two different ways. The first is perception as a natural phenomenon, roughly as a conglomerate of physical and mental capabilities that allows for the interpretation of sense impressions, heuristic reasoning, and imagination. And the second is perception as a political phenomenon. So, Benjamin’s approach views perception as an organized, purposively directed ideological or narrative framework that is imposed on the raw material of sensible intuitions, not only for the purposes of everyday sense perception but only fo the purposes of more elaborate sociocultural fictions. According to this constructivist view of perception, sensible intuitions are a resource, just as for a timber company a forest is a resource.

Following Benjamin’s thought through, then, he is saying that changes in the mode of human perception cause or determine changes in the mode of human existence. The intimate links between the organization of perception and the experience of human existence can be illustrated by an example from architectural practice.

The introduction of scale drawing in the Renaissance changed the way architecture was approached and experienced, paving the way for further developments in perspective drawing. In turn, these graphic techniques led to the re-organization of perception. After the development of the techniques for perspective drawing, it evolved from a tool of visualization into a tool for generating new ideas. Suddenly, the reality of the world could be captured and manipulated by different means. It is worth noting that this impetus toward perspective drawing came not only from scientific advances. Theology also proved to be an impetus in the same direction:

Within the Jesuit tradition, Juan Bautista Villalpando homologized perspective with plan and elevation in his exegetical work on Ezekiel’s vision for the temple of Jerusalem. Emphasising the notion that the human architect must share the divine architect’s capacity for visualising a future building, he insists that plans and elevations are similar to perspectives, as they are merely ‘pictures’ of a building-to-come. [ii]

Just as God was the divine architect who could envision and visualize possible futures, so too, must the architect be able to follow the divine command of future-making. The perspective became not only a means to an end (namely, accurate design and visualization), but also a visual embodiment of the divine assignment given to mankind. It evolved from a mere tool or graphic set of techniques into a sign of the relation between the commanding divine will and subservient human ingenuity.

So, our mode of human existence had changed with the introduction of new organizational format for sense perception: the architect became a servant of God, someone who, in designing, performs a command by the divine will. No longer was architecture a matter of skillfully constructing buildings, but the very idea of defining a new future amounted to fulfilling a divine order.

In its secularized version, conceptions of “Utopia,” “Paradise,” or “Ideal Communism” has developed considerably throughout modernity. Every imagined future is, after all, an image. It must be either a utopian image with a certain attraction (for instance, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City). Alternatively, it depicts a dark dystopian future of the kind we wish to avoid (for instance, the world of Minority Report). Yet different still, a new Utopia can demonstrate the capabilities of a new technology (such as in MVRDV’s Metacity/Datatown or Vincent Callebaut’s Visions for Paris). As image or vision, the imaginary world-to-be has an aura, no less than any other artwork. The urban theorist Kevin Lynch described how imaginative quality this is a feature of even the earliest urban settlements:

The physical environment plays a key role in this unfolding. It is the material basis of the religious idea, the emotional stimulus that binds the peasantry to the system. The city is a “great place”, a release, a new world, and also a new oppression. Its layout is therefore carefully planned to reinforce the sense of awe, and to form a magnificent background for religious ceremony. Built with devotion and also with conscious intent, it is an essential piece of equipment for psychological domination.[iii]

The city opens up a new vista onto reality, embodying a “world beyond the everyday”. Yet, such a world is not without its control mechanisms that direct, steer and organize perception. In particular, the new world must be a connection between the divine and the natural, the sacred and the profane. We find this feature describes in another example:

This urban tradition is continuous in china from 1500 B.C. almost to the present, and the concept of the idealized Chinese city was gradually codified in writing. It should be square, regular and oriented, with an emphasis on enclosure, gates, approaches, the meaning of directions, and the duality of left and right. Creating and maintaining religious and political order was the explicit aim. Ritual and place were fitted together. They expressed, and were believed actually to sustain, the harmony of heaven and men, which was disastrous to disturb.[iv]

Thus, heaven and earth touch each other in Utopia. The Divine order is reflected in the physical layout, and consequently in the organization of society. Unavoidably, the organization of society organizes sense perception — its determines who is seen as superior, and who as inferior, what proper behavior looks like, how the year is divided, which rituals take place and when, and which customs are accepted or unacceptable.

This feature of Utopias is not only discernible in the city layouts of antiquity or so-called primitive societies. Such features can be found in modernity as well, where they can be understood as a fine-tuned set of instruments to usher reality itself into a new era.

Therefore, we must start with acknowledging that these Utopias conjure up something that extends beyond their pictorial contents or mere descriptions, an aesthetic fact of all human cognition that Kant calls “the free play of the imagination and the understanding” in the first part of the Critique of the Power of Judgment. However, to see what that “beyond” is, we need to examine critically the very idea of an “aura.”


[i] W. Benjamin, Illuminations. Essays and Reflections (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 222.

[ii] A. Pérez-Gómez, ‘Questions of Representation: The Poetic Origin of Architecture’, in: M. Frascari, J. Hale, and B. Starkey (eds.), From Models to Drawings (London: Routledge, 2007): p. 11–22 (here p. 17–18).

[iii] K. Lynch, Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1984), p. 9.

[iv] Lynch, Good City Form, p. 13.


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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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