The word perception generally refers to what the body can perceive, what information the body can discern from the outside world. Perception mainly refers to the Latin sense of the word, which is the action of taking possession, apprehension with the mind or the senses. Perception is what enables us to make sense of the world through the experience of our sense and the collection of data, it is an uninterrupted response to the outside world. Even if in the first moment perception seems to be of immediate and easy understanding, thinkers and intellectuals have reflected about the relation between perception, senses and sensations for a long time. Perception has turned into a very complicated object of studies, so much that a branch of philosophy – phenomenology – is totally concerned with human perception of the world.
If perception is the most basic response of human beings to external factors, the main question is then about our role in the process of perceiving. Are we active or are we passive while perceiving what exists outside of us? What makes media affect our perception? What qualities of perceivability are relevant in media? And still, if media are continuously changing and they influence our ability to perceive, how is perception changing throughout time?
In Walter Benjamin’s opinion, perception can change through history and, with that, become distorted. In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he writes:
“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 my historical circumstances as well” (222).
From this quote, one can infer that historical, socio-cultural shifts in habits in human society have a huge impact on the way we perceive reality. For example, with the introduction of new technologies of representation such as photography and the cinematograph in the early years of the 20th century, our perception of time was turned upside down: for the first time, instants were archivable. As argued by Marie Ann Doane in her The Emergence of Cinematic Time, the introduction of cinema acquired such a privileged role in our conception of time perception of time that it has also helped in the creation and solidification of the Western scientific belief in objectivity (10-11, 20). As reported by Jimena Canales in Photogenic Venus. The ‘Cinematographic Turn’ and Its Alternatives in Nineteenth-century France, the Western world’s scientific community was literally torn apart for the last decades of the 19th and the first years of the 20th century. Was the camera superior to the drawing hand? Or was embodied knowledge of the world, the brilliance of human senses the standard of what was science or not? And how to deal with the differences in perception among different scientists?
In few years, the cinematograph spread all over Europe and was greeted with the conviction that “cinema is objectivity in time” (André Bazin, 1958), setting the ground for the hegemony of vision over embodiment, especially in scientific research and popularization. This has led to a long history of ‘supposed objectivity’ that is now being deconstructed by feminist theories and replaced with a new faith in the situatedness of the knowing subject. Feminist scientist and intellectual Sandra Harding, for example, in her Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? claims that it is only through a proper recognition of one’s position in the world that it is possible to reach a level of ‘credible’ objectivity: since perception is variable and rarely unmediated, the only way to be objective is to admit that absolute objectivity (that is, unmediated, unfiltered perception) does not exist (41).
Virtual Reality seems to be resonating with the whole discussion: through embodied cognition, the user merges herself into the system, where her experiences are the result of a combination of perception, cumulated knowledge, and bodily reactions. In VR, every experience is unique as everyone interacts with the imaginary world in a different way. Moreover, thanks to the high degree of embodiment, VR allows human agents to perceive reality from other species’ points of view. This is of peculiar relevance if we think that nowadays we urge to rethink our relationality with planet Earth and its creatures while the ecosystem is collapsing under the weight of our consumption’s habits.
Bazin, André. Qu’est-ce que le cinema?, Éditions du Cerf, 1958.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Doane, Marie Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 2002.
Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Cornell Univ. Press, 1991.
Wellmann Janina, “Science and Cinema”, Science in Context vol. 24, Cinematography, Seriality, and the Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 3:311-328.