Johannes Bennke

Project title

Obliterations: Performative Images in Sensory Ethnography


In my thesis, I develop a typology of performative images in films produced in sensory ethnography and introduce a philosophical concept I have called »Zeigenschaft« (which brings together the concepts of time, appearance and testimony), based on the aesthetic thinking by Emmanuel Levinas.

To read Emmanuel Levinas as a media philosopher provides a new way of looking at images. Levinas’ work on aesthetics is not well-known, his primary concerns being with ethics and language. My approach stems from "Reality and its Shadow” (1948), an early text where he focuses on the image. I elaborate on this term and differentiate it from face (visage) and trace, two other central terms. In a late interview, "De l´oblitération" (1990), he introduces the term l´oblitération, which I further develop as a new concept applicable within media philosophy. My primary hypothesis is that l´oblitération allows for a reconstruction of Levinas’ aesthetic thinking. This term leads to the conceptualization of a different meaning of performativity, emphasizing its passive dimension that is rooted in operations of overwriting, and thus interrelating ethics, aesthetic practice, image, motive and material. My secondary hypothesis is that l´oblitération requires an analysis of aesthetic material, in this case films.

The sensory ethnographic film, from a film and media perspective, is primarily perceived as an innovative approach within contemporary documentary film-making. Such a view does not recognize that these films are more than observational cinema and ethnographic films. While their approach can be traced back to the early days of film history, to surrealism and the structural, experimental and genre film tradition, they also break with this tradition. From the perspective of cultural anthropology, the sensory ethnographic film has a foundation in sensory studies, the anthropology of the senses and visual anthropology, a discursive tradition developed over the last 40 years. Sensory ethnography embraces all the senses and their synesthetic relations, taking a non-human-centered ecological perspective which is conscious of its medial representation. This awareness of the way one records phenomena and other forms of life – animals, nature or more immaterial beings such as ghosts, mythical figures or dreams – is crucial and plays a vital role in how we experience them. Film, as a spatiotemporal medium, allows the representation of these elements, including the uncanny, making it an ideal media for sensory ethnography. In this way, sensory ethnography includes filmic representations of the matter in question. Despite its use in the field, the ethical impulses and the epistemic implications of these media practices have been overlooked and the theoretical and methodological approaches are yet to be systematized. There is no known study which interrelates and systemizes these interdisciplinary fields of theoretical knowledge and practices within media philosophy.

The goal of my study is to develop a typology of performative images from these varied aesthetic and discursive contexts. This is done through transposing Levinas’ l’oblitération into the concept I call »Zeigenschaft« that links the three categories of time (Zeit), appearance (Zeigen) and testimony (Zeugenschaft). This triad allows for a systematization and structures the further course of my study.

In developing the typology, I will revise existing philosophical concepts, focusing on three films. I analyze Forest of Bliss (1986) by Robert Gardner, looking at Gilles Deleuze’s concept of ‘time image‘ (l´image temps) by comparing it to Levinas’, ‘meanwhile’ (l´entretemps de l´image), while examining how Henri Bergson influenced both authors. Secondly, I discuss Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paravel and show that appearance is central to an anthropology of images. Thirdly, I revise concepts of testimony in documentary film theory and analyze El Mar la Mar (2017) by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki.

This analysis will indicate the value of Levinas’ aesthetic thinking to media philosophy. The performative concept of »Zeigenschaft« allows for a perception that witnesses the trauma based on an expanded notion of alterity, a transformative process that comes with it, linking the aesthetic appearance to their image ontology and epistemic singularity. It is through alterity that the various possibilities of mediality, image ontology and understandings of film as medium arise. Using »Zeigenschaft« as a key concept to analyze these films, it becomes possible to systematize these relations taken place in aesthetic practices and to develop a typology of images for sensory ethnography through making the ethical and epistemic impulses explicit. »Zeigenschaft« may also be applied in the epistemologies of aesthetics, allowing for a methodical approach to documentary practices and at the same time facilitating a deeper and more systematic understanding applicable to fields such as image anthropology, film philosophy and especially documentary film theory.


Sensory Ethnography, Media Philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas, Performative Images, Obliteration, Time, Appearance, Testimony, Zeigenschaft, Ethics, Epistemology of Aesthetics, Film Philosophy, Image Anthropology, Documentary Theory



Johannes Bennke studied philosophy, film studies and comparative literature in Frankfurt am Main, Berlin and Paris. In 2014 he finished his Master´s thesis in European Media Studies at the University of Potsdam on the term of image in Emmanuel Levinas writing (Bildkonversionen. Zum Wandel der Performativität und ihrer Episteme in künstlerischen Praktiken). During his studies he had a scholarship by the Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V. and he was a speaker of a working group on arts and sciences. He worked as a student assistant at the Max-Planck-Institute for the history of science and literature in Berlin. Before his studies he worked several years as a photographer and graphic designer at David Chipperfield Architects.



Edited Volumes

Bennke, Johannes; Seifert, Johanna; Siegler, Martin; Terberl, Christina (Hrsg.): Das Mitsein der Medien. Prekäre Koexistenzen von Menschen, Maschinen und Algorithmen, Paderborn: Fink 2018.



Vorwort, in: Emmanuel Levinas, Die Obliteration. Über die Kunst Sacha Sosnos, übers. v. Johannes Bennke, Jonas Hock, Zürich/Berlin, diaphanes 2018 [im Erscheinen].

Rezension zu Dennis Maloney, Empty Cup (Eine leere Tasse), zus. mit Haigt, Ian; transl. by Tzveta Sofronieva, Berlin/Tübingen, Hans Schiler.

Ikonisches Nachleben, in: texte zur kunst, (Juni 2018), Nr. 110, S. 212-215.


Rezension zu Bernd Kracke, Marc Ries (Hg.): Expanded Senses. Neue Sinnlichkeit und Sinnesarbeit in der Spätmoderne. New Conceptions of the Sensual, Sensorial and the Work of the Senses in Late Modernity Bielefeld: transcript 2015, erschienen in: MEDIENwissenschaft. Rezensionen | Reviews, Nr. 3, 2017, S. 359-361. 


Bennke, Johannes, Krtilova, Katerina: Technology of Senses - Towards Philosophy of Digital Media: An Interview with Mark Hansen, in: Iluminace. The Journal of of Film Theory, History and Aesthetics, 2/2016, Vol. 29.

…and One Day It Will All Fit Together. An Interview with Georges Didi-Huberman, in: Iluminace. The Journal of Film Theory, History and Aesthetics, 1/2016, Vol. 28, S. 123-128.

Die Erschütterung des Humanen, in: Cargo, No. 30, Berlin: Cargo Verlag 2016, S. 54-62.

Zur Ethik des Bildes bei Emmanuel Lévinas, in: figurationen. gender literatur kunst: Visuelles Denken/Visual Thinking, hrsg. v. Dieter Mersch, No. 1/2016, Zürich: Böhlau 2016, S. 93-114.


Levinas, Emmanuel: Die Obliteration. Über die Kunst Sacha Sosnos, übers. v. Johannes Bennke, Jonas Hock, Zürich/Berlin, diaphanes 2018 [im Erscheinen]


11/2018 Obliteration und Bilderverbot, Kolloquium „Bilderverbot und Theorie der Kunst“, Selma Stern Zentrum für jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg.

05/2018 Obliterations in El Mar La Mar, docusophia, Tel Aviv.

04/2018 Obliteration. Emmanuel Levinas als Medienphilosophen lesen, AG Medienphilosophie, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste.

02/2018 Sensorische Objekte im Dokumentarischen, FFK, Universität Bochum.

01/2018 Objekte der Sensorischen Ethnographie, Filmreihe zu Objekten der Sensorischen Ethnographie, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar.

10/2017 Das testimoniale Bild. Medienphilosophische Zugänge zur Sensorischen Ethnographie
Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft 2017, Universität Erlangen.

12/2016 Bild und Ähnlichkeit. Eine Geschichte vom Ursprung der Bewegung
„Workshop Ähnlichkeit“, Kooperationsoworkshop des Graduiertenkollegs Automatismen (Universität Paderborn) & KOMA - Kompetenzzentrum Medienanthropologie (Bauhaus-Universität Weimar).

11/2016 The Documentary Real. The Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab and the Conversion of Media Philosophy
„The Real of the Reality. International Conference on Philosophy and Film“, Symposium, 2.-6.11.2016, ZKM | Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe.

09/2016 Spiegeln ohne Reflektion. Zur Performanz der Projektion
„Ernst Kapp und die Anthropologie der Technik. Eine interdisziplinäre Tagung“, 22.-23.09.2016, Internationales Kolleg für Medienphilosophie und Kulturtechnikforschung (IKKM) in Kooperation mit dem KOMA - Kompetenzzentrum Medienanthropologie (Bauhaus-Universität Weimar).

07/2015 Disciplinary Power, Control Power, Psycho Power. Mediality of Technical and Physical Feelings "medias:feeling", 6th Conference of the Master´s Degree Program in Media Studies at the Bauhaus-University Weimar.

06/2015 Imaging as an Act of Destruction, "The Image as an Argument in Science", Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V., University of Arts Berlin.

03/2015 Image Conversions and its Signaturs in Artistic Practices "This is an image! ", Workshop of the Working Group Media Philosophy of the Society for Media Studies, 12th/13th of March 2015, Aby Warburg House, Hamburg.

07/2012 We are all Necronauts! - Art und Democracy in the International Necronautical Society, "Aisthetic Dimensions of the Performative", Public Workshop with a presentation of Kristiane Hasselmann (Free University Berlin) at the University of Potsdam.

03/2012 Morphology of the Humane – An Essay on Body Regimes in Film „Body - Between Knowledge and Perception Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V. (Berlin) 

02/2012 Ethical Dimensionen of the Performative in Herman Melville´s "Bartleby" "Ethical Dimensions of the Performative", Public Workshop with a presentation of Barbara Gronau (Free University Berlin) and Alice Lagaay (University of Bremen) at the University of Potsdam.


Teaching Experience

WiSe 2015/2016: Media anthropological Scenes, Lecture Session at the Bauhaus University Weimar

WiSe 2015/2016: On the Media Ethics of the Image, University of Potsdam

SoSe 2014: The Inoperative Community (Jean-Luc Nancy), in cooperation with Dr. Maurício Liesen (University of São Paulo), University of Potsdam

WiSe 2011/12: Writing on Film at the threshold of Film- and Media Studies, University of Potsdam



01/2018-02/2018 Objekte der Sensorischen Ethnographie
Koncept und Organisation einer Filmreihe am Lichthaus Kino Weimar zusammen mit Susanne Wagner.

02/2018 Experimental Ethnographic Film and the Mediterranean Museum Workshop mit Prof. Dr. Michaela Schäuble, Philip Cartelli und Fabian Tietke.

06/2016 KOMA Tischgespräche: Szenen des Teilens und Tauschens im Film.

Kultursymposium Weimar 2016, Goethe-Institut

06/2014 WE DON´T GIVE, WE JUST TAKE. PARALLACTIC LABORATORY I (Schwerte, Germany) Participative Exhibition, Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V.

09/2013 STOFF[WECHSEL] - Metabolism. A multidisciplinary research workshop (Könnern, Germany) Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V.

06/2013 Inspection of Interdisziplinary Workshops (Berlin/Potsdam, Germany) Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V.

10/2004 - 01/2010 Quick Flick World, Monthly International Shortfilmfestival (Berlin, Germany/ Paris, France) Organisation of „Masterclass-Events“


Selected audio visual projects & projects on the threshold of art and science

09/2014 AEROGRAPHIE (Zurich, Switzerland)
Drawing experiment at the wind tunnel of the research center for transdisciplinary studies at the Zurich University of the Arts, Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V.

Start of a series in practices on medial and aesthetic differences, Working Group on Arts and Sciences, Ev. Studienwerk Villigst e.V. 

- Parallaxen (10 minimal films in 2 Frames, 8fps & 12fps)
- Time Parallaxe (Two-Channel-Video-Installation)
- In the witness stand (Tow-Channel-Video-Installation)
- Ko-respondenz (writing performance together with Dr. Maurício Liesen (University of São Paulo))
- Anarchiv. Collection of documents on „The Inoperative Community“ (together with Dr. Maurício Liesen (University of São Paulo))
- The social bond (Performance, together with Dr. Maurício Liesen (University of São Paulo))

03/2014 DOOR TO NOTHINGNESS (Berlin, Germany)
Soundperformance together with Christina Sporr, part of an event series called Living in empty spaces #1, Berlin

08/2013 ANGELOMETRIE (Berlin, Germany)
Soundperformance together with Tamara Rettenmund, performed at ETI Berlin.

10/2012 BLACKBOX//SPACE OF POSSIBILITY (Potsdam, Germany)
Installation together with Stephan Orendi, exhibited at the Syntopic Salon, Potsdam.