Theory of Perception

Guest professorship

Completed PhDs

Sandra Groll

Serial Aesthetics. A design theoretical study on the social function of design
​Tutors: Prof. Bernhard E. Bürdek, Prof. Frank Georg Zebner, Prof. Hans Zitko

Further information

The lectures in Theory of Perception offer insights into a complex cluster of problems. What is initially decisive is the realization that human sensory activities are fundamentally linked with cognitive, emotional, cultural, social, political and economic factors. In order to describe processes of perception it is therefore necessary to consider a wide-ranging set of instances and forces, which become concentrated into sensory structures and phenomena. Given this connection it is quite obvious that undertaking a productive theory of perception should not by any means be restricted to specific aspects such as visual reception practices, but must essentially adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Alongside philosophical theories, psychological, sociological, cultural-theory and media-theory approaches also play a key role. Perception does not constitute an activity of the subject that remains identical over time, but is first of all modeled, shaped and altered in a process of historical and cultural evolution.

An observation of the processes of perception relies firstly on the fact that apart from man’s abilities to see and hear, which tend to be favored, he also has a body, which develops its own forms of sensation and perception. The theory of perception absolutely requires a theory of corporeality, because only on the basis of such a theory can the question about the inner connection between the various sensory channels be adequately answered in so-called synesthetic processes. Here, above all the corresponding approaches of philosophical phenomenology are of importance (M. Merleau-Ponty, H. Schmitz, B. Waldenfels). As becomes evident in this context, the body represents a decisive factor in the intervention processes of the social imperative and consequently of practices of social power in the life of individuals (Foucault). In addition, the relationship between power and body is of importance for the characteristics and structure of sensory, physical and social spaces. Spatial theory studies in the aftermath of the so-called spatial turn form a central element of instruction. Of importance here is an introduction to classic and more recent theories on the subject of space (G. W. Leibniz, M. Heidegger, K. Lewin, O. F. Bollnow, G. Bachelard, E. Ströker, K. Schlögel). Special attention is given to the concepts that have emerged in recent decades concerning the production of space through socio-cultural practices (H. Lefebvre, B. Werlen, M. Schroer, M. Löw).

Given the intertwining of perceptual processes with the overarching cultural and social circumstances, the theory of perception must always also concern itself with the structures of the real world we live in. In this case architectural, above all urban spaces and corresponding forms of life and perception form a suitable area of study. In this sense urban phenomena, in particular in their various contemporary forms, represent a highly suitable field for studying the complex structures of perceptual practice. Here we need to address the interdependencies between the constitutive elements of the social world and the forms of perception and the behavior of individuals. In doing so, a specific factor is to be considered, which must not be neglected in perception-theory debates, namely the economic aspect. A theory of space and perception would be deficient if it were to omit the logic of monetary economics and its consequences for the state of culture and society. Here the focus of interest is on authors who have contributed decisively to explaining this complex of problems (H. Lefebvre, R. Sennett, M. Castells, D. Harvey, S. Sassen).
In order to do justice to the social implications of perceptual activity, instruction also references classic sociological positions (M. Weber, E. Durkheim, G. Simmel, N. Elias, E. Goffman, P. Bourdieu). Not least of all the concepts of a functional differentiation of society in modern times are of interest. Exemplary in this context are the insights of so-called systems theory, which not only describes the constitution of social functional systems but also examines the question as to the specific connections between these systems. The models of linking and intertwining of partial systems of society developed in this context are at any rate important for the analysis of perception (T. Parsons, N. Luhmann, R. Münch). What also needs to be considered here is not least of all the function of religion for modern and postmodern societies. In this regard the focus of interest is primarily on corresponding forms of sacralization of objects, spaces or situations. It was noted early on that in the course of sensory objects assuming an aura-like status, among other things economic forces gain validity in an encrypted form. A socio-critical theory of perception must place the focus of attention on the return of the religious aspect to the realm of human experience in the Modern Age (K. Marx, W. Benjamin, Th. Luckmann, P. Lafargue, D. Baecker).

While the issue of space forms a key component of the course material, the topic of time is no less important. Of initial interest here are classical philosophical approaches, which pose the question of the conditions and implications of temporal perception (I. Kant, E. Husserl, H. Bergson, M. Heidegger, J. Derrida). As with the perception of space, questions concentrate on how the human perception of time altered in the modern and postmodern era, after all, like space, time cannot be said to have a historically stabile and invariable structure. An aspect that is decisive for more recent developments is the much-cited acceleration of locomotion, transport and everyday life. This development constitutes a prerequisite for the ongoing transformation of forms of experience and perception through to the present day. An analysis of these connections can refer to corresponding sources (W. Schivelbusch, P. Virilio, H. Rosa). Finally, the subject of time is significant for the forms of perception opened up in the so-called contemporary arts. These not only include theater and performance; digital media and film also need to be considered. In terms of reception, the focus is on authors who have addressed the phenomena of time in the corresponding genres (G. Deleuze, J. Baudrillard, G. Großklaus, K. Kirchmann, B. Stiegler).

The range of instruction available to students of Theory of Perception should help them develop competent and critical behavior with regard to processes of perception both in everyday life and in art and design. The interdisciplinary approach does justice to the fact that various emotional, cultural and social forces always infiltrate human perceptual activities. An ability to reflect, which picks out and reveals these structures as a central theme, is not least of all interesting for production practices in art and design. This refers to key questions of aesthetics, which are to be examined in the theory of perception itself. It must be evident that aesthetic experience cannot be understood as a practice independent of the concrete structures of society, but rather itself forms a zone that is penetrated by a wide variety of social factors and imperatives. In this sense, instruction in the subject Theory of Perception also functions as work on contemporary aesthetic theory, which goes beyond the boundaries of traditional aesthetics. As such, the seminars and lectures attempt to contribute to the processes of general enlightenment, with the goal of supporting the independence of the perceiving and acting subject. In other words, it is about gaining liberty and autonomy in the face of an omnipresent consumer and media culture, which restricts the individual’s ability to act and experience in a manner that is problematic. Fundamentally, the course intends to continue the classic program of critical theory with the means of social, cultural and media sciences available today.