Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


The (Pictorial) Construction of Collective Identities in the Third Reich

Collective identities of the Self vs. the Other are not only conveyed in and between cultures through verbal discourse, but also through pictures. Cultural encounters are often comprehended by storytelling, the verbal expression of which has been abundantly studied. Pictorial manifestations, however, have received comparably less attention. Mostly, narration has been associated with verbal discourses, where, briefly put, events or situations are temporally ordered. Even though the narrative capacity of pictures has been taken for granted by e.g. art historians, attempts to elucidate the semiotic and cognitive basis of visual narrativity, esp. in static pictures, have been relatively rare (cf. Ranta 2013).
Within cognitive science (e.g. Bruner 1990; Schank 1995), narratives are regarded as crucial and fundamental cognitive instruments or tools. As Schank suggests, the identity of (sub-) cultures is to a considerable extent based upon the sharing of narrative structures. Culturally shared stories – or stories in general – occur frequently in highly abbreviated form, as “skeleton stories” or “gists”, not least in pictorial form. Moreover, in ways that harmonize with Schank’s account of storytelling and cognition, these also imply conceptions of one’s Ego-culture in relation to Otherness. Many pictures and other visual artworks have been produced in order to consolidate, modify, or reject certain cultural stances.
In this presentation, I shall focus upon one (and even today highly relevant) example of creating cultural identity, namely the racist confrontation of the “Aryans” vs. the Other (e.g. Jews, Slavs, Romani) as promoted by National Socialist thinking and politics. The Third Reich may be seen as the culmination of the development of nationalism in Europe resulting in a radicalized segregation of Ego-culture from its counterparts. Within this context, considerable efforts were made to produce pictorial renderings (and implied narratives) of, and to demarcate, the (Aryan) Ego from the Other - within art in general, but also through media such as journals, schoolbooks, flyers, and not least posters, extensively used for propagandistic purposes. Some concrete pictorial examples indicating these attempts will be discussed and analysed from a narratological and cognitive semiotic perspective.