The Emancipated Spectator

Notes on an important text for theatre and performance

The paradox of the spectator = there is no theatre without spectators but being a spectator is a bad thing because:

  • viewing is the opposite of knowing
  • and the opposite of acting

This essentially leads to the Platonic position that “a true community… does not tolerate theatrical mediation” (3)

(see Rancière, archipolitics in Disagreement (1998): Archipolitics, whose model is supplied by Plato, reveals in all its radically the project of a community based on the complete realization of the arkhê of community, on its integral sen sibilization, replacing without any leftover the democratic configuration of politics)

For Plato, theatre is “bad”; for modern theatre practitioners, it is solely the spectator, who must be:

  • roused from stupefaction using dramatic identification  and “won over by the empathy that makes them identify with the characters on the stage” (4)
  • or distance must be abolished

Ranicère argues that these strategies relate to Brecht and Artaud, which seem different, but ultimately are both part of the same Platonic worldview, which dreams of replacing the “ignorant community of theatre” with “a different community encapsulated in a different performance of bodies” (5). For Brecht and Artaud, this means “theatre” is “the place where the passive audience… must be transformed into the active body of a community,” which involves a foundational presumption: the “idea of community as self-presence.” Since “German Romanticism… theatre has been associated with this idea of the living community” (6).

Roncière also applies this critique of presence to Debord’s society of the spectacle. It seems “anti-Platonic,” but revives “the Romantic vision of truth as non-separation.”

It should come as no surprise that at several points he hints at the theological character of this “vision of truth,” which he characterizes as “communion” (15).

It begins to become possible to see one of Rancière’s most important insights: he is challenging the late modernist orthodoxy predicated on overcoming aesthetic separation and instead insists on its necessity. He turns to his famous work on the philosophy of education (Joseph Jacotot’s The Educated Schoolmaster) in order to claim that:

 “Distance is not an evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication” (10).

I am not sure that I can follow Rancière into his democratic alternative, which consists of insisting on the equality of the teacher and pupil, who may not share the same knowledge, but nevertheless share the capacity to exercise thinking and interpretation. For Rancière, spectators are not passive, but are already active. Regardless of being aware or not, the spectator “observers, selects, compares, interprets” (13). They are thus “distant spectators and active interpreters.” This is the essence of the emancipated spectator: “an emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators” (22) or “the emancipation of  each of us as spectator” in that “being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed” (17).

(This claim is consist with the critical approach taken by scholars of fan cultures, which are relatively easy to celebrate. But what about the most bourgeois  example of audiences, the sort of spectator that originally inspired the French avant-garde tradition from which Artaud emerged? Is the distracted spectator of The Nutcracker also an interpreter? By his account, it would seem so.)

I also find myself wondering about the strangeness of equating the activity of the schoolmaster and the pupil. What does this “exercise” of our various “capacity” for “unique intellectual adventure” entail? In this scenario, what becomes of difference? I assume that it is redirected into the dissensus that composes the fabric of democratic politics, but that outpaces this particular essay about theatre.Honestly, I am not are that Rancière begins to work out how art and theatre might put this process of emancipation to work. He knows this, too, and ends the essay by acknowledging that it might all be taken as “words, yet more words, and nothing but words” (22).

There are concrete clues in the essay “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community.” They merit a brief digression. In this essay, he identifies two examples:

  • a video piece by Albanian artist Anri Sala, Dammi i colori, which “uses the resources of ‘distant’ art to question a politics of art which tries to fuse art and life into one single process” (78)
  • a lot of Pedro Costa. This is the better example. Like Sala, Costa “does not seek to make viewers aware of the structures of domination and inspire them to mobilize their energies. Nor does it revive the avant-garde’s dream of dissolving artistic forms into the relations of a new life. Rather…”
    • Costa: “affirms a  an art in which the form is not split off from the construction of a social relation or the realization of a capacity that belongs to everyone.”
    • It “uses the sensory riches… that can be extracted from the life and setting of these precarious existences and [returns] them to their owners”
    • a letter that combines texts from Cape Verdean immigrants and a Desnos letter from a Nazi camp
    • another example, somehow: Godard’ Histoire(s) du cinéma

Bottom line: Rancière reintroduces aesthetic separation into personal material, which is at odds with the direct politic empowerment advocated by relational art. The goal is not the transformation of consciousness or the mobilization of the spectator, either in literal or aesthetic terms. Instead, it forms a “dissensual figure,” which provokes an internal conflict between registers of sense (58). But what is the conflict in the example of the letter from Costa’s film? It would be gratifying to specify this function, but Rancière is clear about his theory: “To the extent that it is a dissensual community, an aesthetic community is a community structured by disconnection” (59).

The dissensual community is different from the Platonic vision of a community without theatre. It is different from “anti-representation” and from the modernist impulse to essentialize the medium and also from the aesthetics of the sublime that he detects in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “pure sensation.”

Back to The Emancipated Spectator.

These examples don’t quite illustrate how the equality of intelligence that binds together emancipated spectators might appear, but they are suggestive. And they reiterate the importance of not transforming the consciousness of spectators or attempting to mobilize them— that is, emancipation does not overcome aesthetic separation. For Rancière, this separation is essential to politics and aesthetics alike.

This diagnosis of the antagonism towards separation in theatre is in itself a crucial contribution to thinking about contemporary theatre. As he sees it, theatre is stuck in several variants that repeat this impulse, be it in as the Gesamtkunstwerk or postmodern “hybridization” that sets up “a constant exchange of roles and identities, the real and the virtual, the organic and mechanical and information-technology protheses” (21). This “blurring of boundaries” is used to “enhance the effect of the performance without questioning its principles” (21). I think this statement describes a lot of contemporary performance and art.

Avant-garde modernism, the “postmodern,” and even relational art all have this in common: they reject mediation. As Rancière’s words above suggest, this also means literal media, which is often used as a “hyper-theatre that wants to transform representation into presence and passivity into activity” (22). At some point, I will use this point as one small arrow in my own intervention into contemporary theatre and art.

For the time being, I want to make one more observation about an important consequence of his critique of the antagonism towards aesthetic separation. According to Rancière, rethinking separation means challenging the oppositions that undergird the dichotomy between passive and active. It means challenging the “distribution of the sensible” that organizes concepts into oppositional forms.

One result of challenging binary thinking is breaking the assumption of “an identity between cause and effect.” Instead of understanding a logical sequence, the emancipated spectator encounters something mediated, a strangely unnamed “third thing” that is “owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect” (15).

Time to jump back to Aesthetic Separation.

This third thing, just being there, produces what could be described as having a whatever quality, the strange quality of something being whatever it is, shorn of particular identity. These are not Rancière’s words, but it is consistent with his description of aesthetic autonomy that does nothing, is for no one, and is “disconnected from any specific destination, offered to the same ‘indifferent’ gaze” (69).

Perhaps it is this for no one, this whateverness that spectators encounter in Costa’s films, in a letter that is both real and fictional, without being a conflict between the two, which exhibits waiting without expectation of arrival or change: a sense of separation that is vital to being connected and asks us to rethink our relation to mediation and the break.

 

 

 

 

Tuning Speculation IV: Some Personal Highlights

Tuning Speculation

one of the few places that sound (but not necessarily sound studies) can take the lead

heartfelt thanks to the occulture: ted, marc, david, eldritch

some personal highlights:

katherine behar’s keynote on fake news, Facebook, context collapse, and human + non-human relationships, as told from the perspective of object-oriented philosophy

(i lost my notebook, so I have no specific notes, just deep admiration for the clarity, patience, and incisiveness of this talk, which is inspiring me to think about the possibility of teaching about social media as performance and to dive deeper into object-oriented philosophy, especially her new edited volume, oof. in contrast to o-o-o, i was, however, struck by my own untimely return to the subject via Nancy…)

 

cwa4wlrxaaaiobb

Also, always: Margret Grebowicz on the sounds and lives of sea mammals, so suspiciously like our own. Specifically, on researcher Margaret Howe Lovatt’s erotic relationship with her dolphin, Peter, which she re-read as a possible instance of interspecies sexuality— one that requires that we rethink sex and intimacy— in contrast to Carl Sagan’s own “love affair” with whale song as part of the Voyager Golden Record sent to space in 1977. In her words, “Spoiler Alert: All of this is true because you can’t make this shit up.”

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Eldritch Priest’s performative paper that was an exercise on mimicking the process of thinking, which revolved around (forgive the pun) creatures being stuck in circles, beginning with a cockroach and ending with a gorilla. I don’t intend to do justice to this complicated talk here, especially I just don’t know what to do with images of living beings that are apparently in distress or pain. It seemed to be a metaphor (is that the right word?) for the difficulty of thinking. I really appreciate the attempt to bring the non-linearity of thought into discourse, but what does it mean to use pain as a metaphor (if that’s what it is)?

[An interesting alternative take in Q&A: animals suffering from a pheromone imbalance and must be thought in relationship to toxicity]

 

A great performance-lecture (not a lecture-performance) by Joe Snape

 

 

By Nikki Schotzko (Performance Studies, Toronto): a much-needed take on the possibility of love, of love for the other from the perspective of the mother.What would it mean to look at pictures of the other— that is, of refugees— as connected to us, as coming out of us, forever in relation, despite being apart? Evoking the possibilities of reconfiguring kinship networks that has begun in queer life and thought, she directs her audience towards a really remarkable image of a stitched version of a photo of a refugee boy by Franko B, a performance artist known for its graphic depiction of queer erotic themes and corporeal pain (and for that reason I’ve always struggled to appreciate):

not2ba2bnumber

Franko B, Not a Number (2015)

 

Reggio’s corpus

In corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy articulates a complex, post-phenomenological account of the body. For my present purposes, it will suffice to say that Nancy’s corpus (not the body, corps) is not “the” body belonging to a particular individual or subject— nor for that matter, the order of signification. It resists such meaning in order to make sense, sense that does not quite make sense.

In one passage, Nancy describes corpus as a collection of singularities: many features that do not add up into a meaningful whole.

An other is a body because only a body is an other. It has this nose, that skin color, this texture, that size, this fold, tightness. It weighs this weight. It smells that way. Why is this body thus, and not otherwise? Because it is other— and alterity consists in being-thus [l’être-tel], in being the thus and thus and thus of this body, exposed all the way into its extremities. The inexhaustible corpus of a body’s features. (31)

I think it’s the first definition of corpus as such in corpus. He continues

The other will have come first, from the farthest, most displaced place, a corpus of features finally identified with “him”— yet remaining in itself unidentifiable: because these features are all foreign to each other, this arm and that chin, those hair and these hips, and this voice, and this……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

What an ellipsis! (There may be much to think of there…)

This arm, that chin, those hair, and these hips: we witness these singular features in Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors, a film of faces.

 

Nancy’s corpus is probably not a perfect match for Visitors. Reggio uses a score by Philip Glass that keeps the film squarely located in a the language of late modernist lyricism, at once both humanist and theological. I haven’t reviewed the film closely in some time, but it definitely bears traces of a nostalgic yearning for face-to-face contact in a pre-modern world free from alienation– certainly, that’s in keeping with his previous films.

 

reggio

The world stripped of people.

And yet… there is also something potentially interesting about the indefinite, ongoing taxonomy of faces presented in Visitors. These are not faces to be known, but merely visitors, passing by among others in an infinite succession of features, which Nancy describes as “all coming together [faisant corps] and being dislocated at the same time [ensemble]” (31)

There are other such facial projects– taxonomies, not portraits. (Nancy also has interesting things to say about portraits in The Ground of the Image.) August Sander, perhaps:

 

sander1

 

There is a lot to say here: features, clothes, light, stone, the many stones that bind and separate this body from other bodies, whose accumulation constitutes a corpus.

Would the Bernd and Hila Becher (whose work has never appealed to me) then be working on, towards the taxonomy of non-human features?

becher-anonymous2-900

 

Nancy on the Medium in Dance

Si je reviens par ce chemin au bord de la question propre de la danse, je serai porté à dire que le propre de cet art est de produire son sens en retrain de tout médium et par là  d’effacer le plus possible l’effet de signification que produit un médium. Ce dernier, en effet, comme son nom l’indique, opère une médiation, un renvoi vers un autre ordre. La peinture (au sens de pigment ou de pâte), le crayon, l’instrument (fût-il la voix), la pierre, la capture photographique ou cinématographique des événements lumineux, etc., semblent d’abord nous proposer un moyen pur une fin qui serait le dégagement de quelque signification (expression, présentation, comme on voudra).

alliterations

An image from Allitérations. The im-mediate?

Mais lorsque ce moyen est le corps propre de l’artiste […] on est d’emblée porté au moins à soupçonner un autre configuration. Le moyen et la fin se rapprochent, voire se recouvrent. C’est aussi pourquoi la danse est un art que son spectateur ne regarde pas seulement, ni même surtout: son regard se fait geste intérieur, tension discrète de ses propres muscles, mouvement inchoatif. D’où, sans doute, le fait que la vision d’un danseur (d’une danseuse), out d’un(e) acrobate, ait été un exemple fréquent de ce que l’on cherchait à mettre en évidence sous le nom d’empathie. Mais de là, peut-être, aussi […] le fait que le danseur (la danseuse) soit un(e) artist particulièrement “autoréférencié(e),” si je peux le dire ainsi. Je veux dire ni narcissique, ni autistique, ni égocentrique, mais dans un rapport immédiat à soi: im-médiat, sans médiation par un médium et pourtant pas non plus simplement immanent au sens strict du terme (comme l’eau dans l’eau…), mais se prenant comme médium de soi.

Ce qui, d’ailleurs, aussitôt me ramène, sans que je l’aie vu venir, au plus près de l’exercice de la pensée… Du même coup, se lève une question ou un thème décisif: comment l’être en rapport à soi est aussi bien entièrement tourné vers le dehors, car il ne cultive pas un “soi” donné, il interroge un “soi,” une “ipséité” qui précisément n’est jamais donné…

– Jean-Luc Nancy in correspondence with Mathilde Monnier in Alliterations: conversations sur la danse (2005), p. 29-30

Vers Mathilde, Claire Denis (2004)

bare life (eiko) on wall street

Marx called money a “general equivalent.” It is this equivalence that is being discussed here. Not to think about it by itself, but to reflect that the regime of general equivalence henceforth virtually absorbs, well beyond the monetary or financial sphere but thanks to it and with regard to it, all the spheres of human existence, and along with them all things that exist.

Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes

Eiko Otake, A Body on Wall Street on June 20, 2016

(Aside: Eiko and Nancy are not a 100% match, but that’s not the point here.)

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016_DSC6922 Photo by Wm Johnston

I like this next shot.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_0196

And the same thing here.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_1228

Eiko teaches here (Colorado) in the fall.