The mythological city

Whether it is prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves or the graffiti and advertising we see all over the walls of our modern cities, people need to mark out their space, distinguish it from the untamed wilderness. Peter Wendl asks why we still need to produce signs and icons in public spaces.

In his study Arbeit am Mythos Hans Blumenberg defines the human being as an entity that tries to escape the absolutism of reality, i.e. the powerlessness of the prescient human being confronted with the forces of nature – thunder-storm, heat, disease.1 Human beings use all conceivable means to fight the absolutism of reality by searching for explanations for inexplicable things.2 They produce myths to make their chaotic environment more liveable. Myths are a pre-scientific rationalization of reality that produce tales and images. It is because of these images that humans create the ability to dissociate themselves from the immediacy of reality. From Blumenberg’s point of view, the retreat of early humans into caves and the invention of cave paintings is a manifestation of this behaviour.3

By inventing myths mankind also invented media, which can be used as a shock absorber between mankind and the immediacy of the world. Media not only functions as a safeguard against the outer world, but also provides an interface, a facilitator that offers a window on the world and makes controlled communication possible.4 From this point of view, our cities appear as a contemporary transformation of the Stone Age caves. Caves show the following symptoms, common to caves, villages and cities: first, all these sites were – and still are – the hideaways and panic rooms of mankind. Second, all these sites seem to provoke humans to produce signs and images, not only in written form – the first writings of mankind were done in the first cities, founded by the Sumerians.5 In fact, these signs and images manifest themselves directly in space. As a result, they are constantly visible. Space only becomes cultured if it possesses signs.6 Space which possesses no signs, remains “wild”. Humans produce signs to distinguish cultured space and mark it off from the wilderness.

Traffic signs and road signs satisfy the desire for a rational ordering of space. All the other signs we produce, such as graffiti or advertising, do not provide a logical ordering of space. They cover the environment with a mythologizing interface, This also allows a more distanced point of view. Moreover, it reveals the hidden laws of space not in a rational and logical manner but annotates it in a more associative way. Since 2007, Sao Paolo is the only city in the world where advertisings in urban space is banned by law. Revealingly, there is more graffiti there than in any other city in the world.7

Images and signs which are put in public space in addition to the logical information such as traffic signs, road signs and maps, seem to be evidence of the human need for a mythological, pre-scientific and pre-rational ordering of space. It seems that the human being is not satisfied with the purely logical information system implanted in space. Apparently, the human being needs other resources to oppose the absolutism of reality. Even the so-called “modern” human being goes back to creating myths. Roland Barthes particularly remarks that even photography, film or advertising can embody myths. He further states that the important message of a myth is basically not the content communicated but the way in which it is communicated: “Da der Mythos eine Aussage ist, kann alles, wovon ein Diskurs Rechenschaft ablegen kann, Mythos werden. Der Mythos wird nicht durch das Objekt seiner Botschaft definiert, sondern durch die Art und Weise, wie er diese ausspricht.”8 McLuhan extends this argument to media in general.9 Myths have to communicate with us. In addition to cave paintings and Christian myths, contemporary signs and images which are put into urban spaces also serve this need: they speak to us, whether we want it or not.

The main message in these figures respectively is “Believe!” “Buy!” The main message in both examples is: something is looking at you and it is located in a higher dimension. Both pictures communicate that there is a superior power that cannot be explained in a rational way. By producing such messages, humanity embeds itself into a bigger context, which makes the environment more reliable.

Contexts native and foreign

Human beings are Homo Pictor.10 He customizes his environment to his needs and desires by leaving signs and icons. Jonas says that this skill marks an anthropological border: “Not an animal intervened at that place, where I can see this sign, it must have been a human being.” As a result, Homo Pictor transformed a natural space into an artificial one and documented his own presence in that space.11 Jonas states that only this conversion from nature to culture makes humans human. As a result, it is possible to differentiate between humans and animals, between humans and nature. The Homo Pictor marks his space with signs and icons and delineates it from the space of nature, wilderness and the non-denoted.

Initially, this distinction happens by chance. First and foremost, signs are temporary communicators, which have a right to exist only as the connection between transmitter and receiver. Space which is permanently occupied by signs is only generated as a secondary effect of communication. But we have to assume that this side effect is not completely irrelevant to the human being. Otherwise, we could not satisfactorily explain why we don’t clear the space and remove all those signs we no longer need for our communication processes. Why does Homo Communicator not get rid of his signs?12

There is no question as to we why we don’t remove traffic signs or navigations systems every day and just put them into space; they are needed for someone’s guidance. They behave like institutions which are inscribed in space and regulate social processes.13 It would be irrational if we repeatedly redeveloped all these signs. We need them too often. In addition to that, they are set out in such a way as to be comprehensible at all times and in all places. We could describe them as the logical symbol systems or the native-language sign-systems of our societies because they always communicate meaningfully and understandably.

But how about all the other signs we produce in our environment? There are graffiti on walls, writings on toilets, stickers on glass panes, posters on advertising columns? First, these signs are mostly not about pure information and they don’t form a coherent and universally understandable language as do traffic signs in a city. In fact, these signs are not organised, but arise anarchically and belong to different control systems, which are not universally understandable but merely comprehensible in isolated social units.

Second, these signs don’t make sense as institutions permanently marking the public space: on the whole, they don’t regulate social processes. Undoubtedly, unique symbols, which only small groups can understand, can nevertheless have regulative functions, for example, the “Hobo codes” used by migrant workers. But what do these non-universal symbol systems mean to those who don’t belong to the circle of insiders? How does society handle these alien symbol systems? How can we lead all those signs back to a convincing and coherent meaning? We could describe them as the mythological symbol systems of our society.

Obscure encoding and territorial marking

How can we differentiate between logical and mythological symbol systems? Information can only be logically decoded if we know its particular context as well as the information itself. On the one hand we should be aware of the specific code of the information in a semiotic sense, on the other we should know about the punctuation – the signification of the information within the whole communication process. Furthermore, we should care about both transmitter and receiver of the information. To turn the argument on its head: if we don’t know enough about the context of the information, its message enters the territory of the mythical.

Public space, seen as a medium for communicative expressions, is ambivalent: although information is directed towards an individual, it is nevertheless apparent to others. As a result, we can observe two different strategies for channelling information: first, encryption of the entire message. As a consequence, only a defined audience will be able to decrypt the information. None of the other recipients will be able to decode it even though they know that the information is not addressed to them. The second strategy is to transfer small packages of unencrypted information isolated from their context. The entire context is only known to insiders; other recipients, who are not addressed, are able to read the single information packages but do not understand the message because of the missing links. At the same time as he is receiving those signals, the excluded recipient potentially does not realize that the information is actually not addressed to him. As a consequence, he may take the message as referring to himself.

Words of God

Signs serve the needs of direct communication, adjourned communication or permanent communication between transmitter and receiver. Depending on the particular time-lag between the moment of broadcast and the moment of reception, different types of media have to be used. Nevertheless, signs often outlast their intended life expectancy. As mentioned above, visible signs mark the human space. In addition, those signs that outlast their own intended lifespan, sediment the human space and charge it with archaic meanings. Signs of former communication processes are not merely passive hints from the past – like a footprint – they are active voices which talk to us about incidents that are now out of date. If signs outlast the time-lag of their initial communication, they shed their own origin and context. They become signs which have forgotten their own transmitter. If a physically and logically ascribable emitter is missing, we displace the source of information to a metaphysical place. These signs become words of God. Similar examples of mythological sign production are numerous.

How about signs which do have an emitter but are not addressed to a specified recipient? At first sight, a missing recipient seems not to be as productive for us as a missing transmitter. Signs that have disengaged themselves from their emitter have, at least, made a contribution to the development of religions. Furthermore, it is quite normal for a human being to talk to himself without addressing his words to a specified counterpart. But why are we doing that? Does this form of communication have any effect and does it make any sense? Obviously, because no one else is involved in the communication process, the contingent effect can only affect the emitter. A human being who is talking to himself is potentially broadcasting sensible signs, but only he knows their meaning. That is why we usually have to categorize this communication as absurd. Initially, signs that have no specified receiver come to nothing. Nevertheless, we repeatedly produce signs without addressing them to an available recipient: the message in a bottle, the house blessing or the Golden Record that NASA launched into space in 1977.

Why do we do it? It seems absurd, to pour out signs with no specified receiver. These are metaphysical information transfers which dislocate the reception of the information along the space-time continuum potentially ad infinitum. By consciously displacing the receiver into the dark, even into the netherworld, an ordinary cybernetic model of communication becomes practically impossible. And if we do get feedback we were neither prepared for nor expected an answer to we are irritated. Nevertheless, even though the answer is obscure, the message in a bottle and the Golden Record do make sense to us. Appreciation for this form of communication is not describable as a successful information transfer to a recipient who potentially doesn’t exist, nor does it fail because of the missing response. If that were so, we would have quit long ago. Just as with the signs that miss their emitter, we cannot logically decode those signs that miss their recipient. They can only be decrypted if they are seen not only as occasional relicts of human communication and if we admit that the spatialization of signs has its own meaning, one that exceeds the intrinsic semiological meaning of the signs and produces a secondary semiological system.14 To produce such superordinate symbol systems, we need a seemingly meaningless communication to last as a document and make the signs available for others as evidence of the communication process. This ensures that the effects of the signs do not disappear without trace but have influence on later ages.

Odds and ends

The production of this secondary semiological system proceeds in two steps: logical communication turns into communication without context: a débris of messages, coming from the dark and going into the dark, not disappearing but continuing to exist as documents. After that, Homo Communicator uses those messages to create his own mythology and makes himself into a Homo Creditoris: “The originality of mythic thinking is like bricolage in a practical sense; we produce structured entities, not directly by means of other structured entities, but by using odds and ends […] fossil vouchers of history, of an individual or a society.”15 By means of such bricolage, humans construct their own explanatory models by producing their own myths in which coherence is totally lacking. The amateur even uses the stock of existing myths to create new ones. As a consequence, different mythologies do not independently generate original symbols. Similarities between early Sumerian writings, the Epic of Gilgamesch or the Hebrew Bible vouch for that (Watson, 2005).16 The symbol of the all-seeing eye also appears under the same circumstances in varied pictorial universes. Both similarities of content (the omnipresent gaze) and style (Horus type, hand type, flying eye type, triangle) are obvious.

The mythological city

The logical symbol systems of our cities, which I mentioned above, find strong competitors in mythological signs. They push into still unoccupied space: in Galata, a traditional business district in Istanbul, graffiti characteristically limits itself to the ground level on rolling shutters of shops that cover the elaborate displays in the showcases after closing time.

During the day, the business districts of Istanbul are littered with sings and symbols. Every imaginable corner or reachable height is occupied with displays of the products on offer. At night, countless products disappear without a trace behind the voiceless roller shutters. What remains is a lack of information, offering space for new signs, virtually provoking their appearance. In Galata, it is common for sprayers in leisurely fashion to leave their graffiti on closed roller shutters next to cafés and bars which are still open in the early evening. They have no fear of being accused of vandalism. Kripoe, a sprayer whose graffiti are well known in Berlin, systematically sprayed almost every roller shutter with his significant eye and bone symbols in the main street of Galata, even in the side alleys. This can no longer be described as an undercover mission in the dead of night; the result is too big and too obvious – and no one seems bothered about it.

It is not relevant for the reception of mythological symbol systems of a city that the emerging signs don’t form a coherent system but rather an occasionally inconsistent formation. Today, the science of mythological studies assumes that myths are still part and parcel of human existence but are not received as literally true. In fact, today’s myths can’t and won’t disguise their fictional nature. We must, therefore, describe them as a “visual allegorical expression of a life form, which – indefatigably – has lived up to the intangible, while endeavouring to come to its senses, because we can already regard the effort to see reason as an aim which cannot be missed.”17 Under these circumstances, signs that are independent of logically coherent and directly earmarked symbol systems have a second meaning: we do not receive the message in a bottle, the house blessing, the graffiti or the advertising as literally true, but merely as the allegorical expression of our effort to denote the unknowable and to make it manageable.


As shown above, the signs and symbols of our cities can be characterized by their missing contexts. Because of that, they provide an ideal source for a playful and fictional communication devoid of consequences. A dialogue on the wall of a toilet neither has an emitter nor a specified receiver. As if by magic, a new story unfolds on the walls through the endless reactions and answers it provokes. This story can only be described as a myth. A dialogue that communicates with itself, that starts from somewhere out there and vanishes whence it came.

Current developments in advertising show similar tendencies: the achievements of recent advertising strategies such as viral or guerrilla advertising prove that even advertising where the context is missing affects people. Advertising sheds its own broadcaster, but not with the intention of deceiving us or concealing its own intentions. By disposing of the emitter, advertising also initially does away with the literal receiver, i.e. the consumer. Like the message on the wall of a toilet, advertising with dynamic contexts offers us a way of understanding it and recycling it. Although we are aware of the fiction of urban myths – it is interesting that this phrase has established itself as a term that describes the spread of rumours originally planted by advertising companies – we do not banish them to the realm of the forbidden but permit a dialogue between advertising and us, just as single messages on a toilet wall permit dialogue. Because of the missing contexts, ways of interacting within this dialogue are manifold: answering and modifying (Adbusting), affirming and retelling (Viral), associating and quoting.

In conclusion, we can perhaps answer the questions what positive effect can be wrenched from the mythological signs in public space” and why do we need graffiti and advertising to symbolically acquire our environment? Graffiti have worked hard to acquire the status of a cultural contribution. But this contribution is restricted, even in the research on graffiti, either to a sub-cultural or individual expression seeking our empathy, or to a portent or warning.18 Advertising still has to struggle for that status. The sociological reception of advertising is, beyond critical arguments, limited to an indicator. According to Ernst Primosch, advertising was an indicator of the desires, needs and interests of our society. But this is not an insight we can benefit from. Advertising is developed to correspond to our wishes and interests rather than to generate them.

The effects of graffiti and advertising are always discussed under the same terms: they are always seen as fossil signs from which the archaeologist has to infer the condition of our society, of a sub-cultural movement or of single individuals. At best, we can use those interpretations to anticipate future developments. Advertising and graffiti are always seen as passive endpoints of an interrupted communication process, as signs without junctions, never as active voices of communication still in progress, i.e. as fragments that we can recycle in our myths, that inscribe themselves into our symbolic systems and that we can modify. These modifications necessarily reflect themselves in our symbolic adoption of space. Symbolic systems that are specifically designed to regulate social processes do not tolerate that. Urban planning, architecture and art in public spaces are too idle for that.

Hans Blumenberg, Arbeit am Mythos, 10, Frankfurt a. M. 2006

op.cit., 11

op cit, 16

Alexander R. Galloway, Das müßige Interface, Köln, 2010

Peter Watson, Ideen -- Eine Kulturgeschichte von der Entdeckung des Feuers bis zur Moderne, München 2005

Charles Sanders Peirce, CP 2.275

ARTE Metropolis 11.2009

Roland Barthes, Mythen des Alltags. Frankfurt a. M. 1964

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, New York 1967

Hans Jonas, "Homo Pictor. Von der Freiheit des Bildens" in Gottfried Boehm (ed.) Was ist ein Bild? München 1994

Jürgen Mittelstraß, (ed.) Enzyklopädie / Philosophie und Wissernschaftstheorie, Stuttgart 2004

Jürgen Baacke, Kommunikation und Kompetenz, München 1973

Matina Löw, Raumsoziologie, Frankfurt a. M 2000

Barthes, op. cit.

Claude Levi-Strauss, Das wilde Denken, Frankfurt a. M. 1973

Watson, op.cit

Mittelstraß, op. cit. 953

Institut für Graffitiforschung, Graffiti-News Nr. 48. 2002; Graffitiverein, Schematische Darstellung des Modells der Graffitipolygeneses im Kontext der Bildenden Kunst und ihrer räumlichen Situierung, 2009.

Published 25 July 2011
Original in German
First published by dérive 42 (2011) (German version) / Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by dérive © Peter Wendl / dérive / Eurozine



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