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Book Review: Erika Fischer-Lichte (eds.): Wahrnehmung und Medialität [Perception and mediality]. Tübingen/Basel: Francke 2001.

In recent years, American Theatre and Performance Studies scholars in particular have brought up entire artilleries to fight their war of words about the question of faith concerning live theatre versus mediatized performance. The debate had initially been instigated by the opposing views of Peggy Phelan and Phil Auslander (1). Although the German academic community had already introduced the concept of ‘intermedial theatre’ about a decade ago, it has not been quite as prolific nor as controversial on the issue of mediality in theatrical performance (2). A new edited volume by Germany’s leading theatre academic, Berlin-based Erika Fischer-Lichte, now delivers a vast cornucopia of interdisciplinary research on perception and mediality (‘Wahrnehmung und Medialität’ is the original title of her essay collection published in German) which has been done in that country so far.

In her introduction, Fischer-Lichte seeks to calm the waves of the American controversy as she reunites the opposing camps with a single blow. She claims that neither is live theatre essentially authentic and subversive (as the Phelan-followers argue), nor is mediatized performance automatically the opposite (as the Auslander-camp maintains). Suggesting a descriptive rather than a normative or ideological concept of ‘liveness’, she abandons the understanding of the term which defines it as absence of all media technology on stage (or wherever). Fischer-Lichte rather characterizes liveness as the physical, spatial co-presence of actors and spectators. Briefly considering recent German stage productions by directors Frank Castorf and Einar Schleef, she concludes that, in fact, a prolific interchange between live theatre and mediatized performance takes place. Both forms of performance aim at the same effect: they try to convey a certain ‘presence’, which Fischer-Lichte describes as ‘a specific experience of intensity’ (‘spezifische Erfahrung von Intensität’). As a reference point for the entire collection of essays, she presents a concept of mediality as integral part of her definition of theatricality: ‘Once we understand theatricality as the in each instance specific staging of bodies in different media for the in each instance specific perception through others, theatricality and mediality seem intimately connected’ (p. 13) [‘Versteht man unter Theatralität die je spezifische Inszenierung von Körpern in unterschiedlichen Medien zur je besonderen Wahrnehmung durch andere, dann erscheint Theatralität eng auf Medialität bezogen.’]. The volume then presents 19 case-studies collected at a Berlin conference on ‘perception and mediality’ in 1999. The book is divided into four main sections, as was the conference. The first part is dedicated to issues of perception and understanding from a historical perspective. First off, a working group from Munich studies the crisis of perception in the eighteenth century relating it to a ‘loss of the real’ in times of modernization and a changed mode of perception based on new technical means and media. In their argument, they seek to overcome the limitation of recent Media Theory which has focussed only on the technological aspect of storing and transmitting data. Günther Heeg then presents a theatrical answer to the epistemic problem around 1800. The French theatre tableau vivant as a medium (in a more religious and spiritual than technological sense), according to him, refocused the scattered gaze and canalised the emotional response, the affects, of the audience through collective experience. Also examining the watershed of eighteenth century, Sibylle Peters portrays the dependency of new modes of philosophical perception on theatrical models. Departing from the end of metaphysical philosophy with Kant’s exploration of the limits of reason, Peters describes the affinities of anthropology and theatre using the German actor-academic Karl Phillip Moritz as an example. She then suggests a reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology which presents human perception as experience of theatricality and mediality. Jumping to the early decades of the twentieth century, Ulrike Brunotte concludes the historical section, pursuing the question why diverse kinds of cultic ritual became of predominant interest to numerous researchers in academic humanities (especially in what Brunotte calls ‘imaginary ethnography’) at this particular moment of history.

The following, most interesting portion of the book, entitled ‘Transformation’, then explores how different media generate and mint aesthetic perception and are eventually even able to generate ‘new realities’. Two essays move to the political stage: Dirk Tänzler compares archive movie material of public speeches by Roosevelt and Hitler, focusing on how their speeches were documented in most different ways. Describing the relevant ‘aesthetics of power’, Tänzler shows how both political leaders deal in an unprofessional and still incompetent, ‘natural’ manner with the new medium of film. Still treating their filmed speeches as regular face-to-face-interaction, they were nevertheless able to shape and direct public perception. Later, Rüdiger Ontrup and Christian Schicha tackle the impact of new media technologies on the political and on the personalities of politicians from the 1980-s onwards, stating an ‘aesthetization and theatricalization of the political’ in our present-day society. Two interdisciplinary contributions examine how strategies of mediality reshape an entire urban environment (Beate Binder takes the obvious example of Berlin as new capital of reunited Germany), and how religious media transform everyday life in India and Japan (Klaus-Peter Köpping and Ursula Rao). Only two papers address specifically the realms of Theatre and Performance Studies. Petra Maria Meyer points, with a rather obscure argument about video material by Robert Cahen, at most interesting questions. She intends to demonstrate how video artists take up specific staging techniques of theatrical performance to irritate, but at the same time expand the cognitive capacity of the spectators. Moving in the opposite direction, co-editors Christian Horn, Sandra Umathum and Matthias Warstat examine how channel-hopping as a specific mode of fragmentary perception in our current TV-society also affects the language of theatre. Notwithstanding same flaws and confusion, these two essays open the field for most promising future research in a core area of intermediality. There still remains a lot in the dark about influences of new modes of perception, as they are generated by new media technologies such as videos and not the least the internet (which, oddly enough, escapes the closer attention of all contributors to this volume), on theatrical performance – and vice versa. Here, the ‘American’ debate on live versus (or not versus) mediatized performance might have been more closely addressed, supplemented, or even productively redirected.

The third subsection then turns to the foreign and the exotic – a further topic which has recently been highly profiled in German Theatre and Performance Studies. Christopher Balme in his English-language contribution (the only one in the book) emphasis that European colonizers during the eighteenth century conquered foreign worlds not the least by applying metaphors of spectacle to the perception and the description of their alien encounters. They thus rendered these worlds – in the words of Edward Said cited by Balme – ‘a theatrical stage affixed to Europe’. Burkhard Schnepel meditates on strange worlds of an entirely different kind: he compares the ‘politics of dreams’ from an ethnologic, trans-cultural perspective. Again going back to the eighteenth century, Stefan Simon demonstrates how various medial strategies were applied in nineteenth century techniques like the ‘Diorama’ and the ‘Moving Panorama’ to facilitate and intensify the perception of diverse exotica for the spectators. He concentrates particularly on the function of music in these dominantly pictorial media.

Lastly, the final chapter examines in more detail the concept of ‘presence’ put forward by Fischer-Lichte in her introductory remarks. The disparate case-studies all tend to verify that even seemingly unmediated presence and physicality are always constructed by strategies of mediality. Here, the book makes an important point against recurring claims about authenticity and ‘true’ physical presence as genuine, even subversive potential of theatre. Dieter Mersch, however, suggests from a philosopher’s point of view a certain – in his terms – ‘a-medial’ plane of perception which supposedly precedes conceptual and semiotic understanding. The dominant Western mode of visual perception and representation, he states, had always neglected this particular ‘a-medial’ sphere. Those who still do not want to give up ideas of ‘pure presence’ will find some new ammunition in his argument. In an excellent piece of fieldwork in Performance Studies, Nicole Janowski studies the creation of presence through states of trance, obsession and embodiment in the ritual context of the Brasilian Umbanda-religion. In her conclusion, she skilfully applies categories of theatre semiotics to ritual performance delivering an extensive chart which helps to distinguish dominantly presentative from representative cultic events. Approaching aesthetic presence from a totally different angle, Martin Zenck, Kai-Uwe Kirchert and Tobias Fichte relate this concept to the generation of certain ‘artistic atmospheres’, drawing on the ‘erotics of art’ Susan Sontag once had insisted on in her essay Against Interpretation. Analyzing compositions by Luigi Nono, the authors provide some interesting thoughts on the mediality of the interpreting musician as well. Leaving the performative sphere for every-day sociology, Caroline Spielhagen, Karl-Heinz Renner, Bernd Stegmeyer, Elke Roth and Lothar Laux collect a huge amount of empirical data on every-day performance and self-aggrandizement. Drawing on Goffman’s idea of ‘framing’, Herbert Willems then goes on to explore strategies of presence in mass-media. Finally, Hans-Friedrich Bormann looks at a video by notorious performance artist Chris Burden and examines how the documentation of a singular performance in itself might result in a performative event generating its own ‘presence’ in the mind of the audience.

On its 419 pages, the volume thus gathers a fast amount of heterogeneous research on various aspects of ‘perception and mediality’. However, the book integrates interdisciplinary research to such a large extent that the original discipline, theatre, has to retreat too far to the background. The highly informed contributions in the end still leave some of the most basic questions in the new field of research on theatre and mediality open. From a more positive perspective, though, the reader is encouraged, if not invited to close the gaps and achieve what the collected conference papers did not at all times: to apply these new ideas to the numerous facets of contemporary theatre performance in all genres from conventional drama to experimental performance. In that respect, it is particularly inspiring to notice how some contributors refocus the attention to aspects of performance which up to now have rarely been investigated in detail, such as the role of sound. Furthermore, the book touches at least en passant on what future research at the crossroads between Theatre and Media Studies should address more straightforwardly: how theatre at all times has provided us with our view of the world, and how the development of new media, not only on the verge to our present-day electronic society, has constantly reshaped the cultural institution of theatrical performance in its broadest sense.


(1) The origins of the dispute go back to Phelan, 1993, and Auslander, 1999.

(2) Christopher Balme summarizes this concept of intermediality and theatre well in his essay on the theatre of Robert Lepage (comp. Balme, 1999).


Auslander, Philip (1999): Liveness. London/New York: Routledge.

Balme, Christopher (1999): ‘Robert Lepage und die Zukunft des Theaters im Medienzeitalter’ – In: Erika Fischer-Lichte (eds.): Transformationen. Berlin: Theater der Zeit.

Phelan, Peggy (1993): Unmarked. London/New York: Routledge.

Dr Peter M Boenisch (*1971) is lecturer for dance and performance at the Institute for Theatre Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich/Germany. His main research interests are corporeality and physicality on stage, theatre and media, and British theatre history. He chairs the ‘Emerging Scholars’-committee within the Performance Studies international-organization, and is a member of the working group ‘Theatre and Intermediality’ within the International Federation for Theatre Research. Apart from several essays, he has recently published his book ‘körPERformance’ (in German). Currently, he is co-editing an issue of Performance Research on ‘Bodiescapes’ for Routledge.