Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet

Master Narratives and the (Pictorial) Construction of Otherness: Anti-Semitic Images in the Third Reich and Beyond

Michael Ranta


Collective identities of the Self (or Ego) vs. the Other are not only conveyed in and between cultures through verbal discourse, but also through pictures. Such cultural constructions are often established and consolidated by storytelling, where, briefly put, events or situations are temporally ordered. 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. Pictures and visual artworks may be powerful resources for establishing and consolidating cultural stances and framing actions. Put in another way, they may function as cognitive tools or ‘exograms’ (Donald 1991, 2010) for understanding and manipulating varying environmental conditions which we as humans encounter as well as organizing the past into intelligible units. Pictures and visual artworks may be powerful narrative resources for establishing and consolidating cultural stances and framing actions.

                      In this paper, I shall focus upon demarcation efforts of ‘Jews’ as the Other since the Middle Ages onwards, in the Third Reich’s iconography, as well as in modern, radicalized forms of anti-Semitic picturing in Arab media. Within overarching master stories, staging a pseudo-historical struggle between various protagonists and Jew antagonists, considerable efforts have been made to produce pictorial narratives or gists in order to demarcate the Ego from the other. A number of concrete pictorial examples will be presented from a narratological and cultural semiotic perspective.




Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1990).

Merlin Donald: Origins of the Modern Mind – Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press 1991.

Merlin Donald, The exographic revolution: Neuropsychological Sequelae. In L. Malafouris & C. Renfrew (Eds.), The cognitive life of things - Recasting the boundaries of the mind, pp. 71-79. (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2010)

Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story - Narrative and Intelligence (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 1995).