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.





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